Lives On The [Fault] Line: A Geospatial Analysis of the San Andreas Fault in Python

Have you watched the action-packed movie, San Andreas? In the movie, California’s San Andreas Fault triggers a devastating, magnitude nine earthquake, the largest in the state’s history. Rather than critique the movie’s thrilling scenes, in this post, I’d like to explore answers to the question, how many people live within ¼, ½, ¾, and 1 mile of the fault, to demonstrate conducting a geospatial analysis in Python.

To start, let’s set up a dedicated analysis environment and download the input data, including shapefiles for California’s census tracts and the San Andreas Fault, as well as 2016 population data for the census tracts.

Project Environment

To create a dedicated analysis environment, let’s create a new folder for our files and an isolated Python environment with conda or virtualenv. The following commands create a new folder named san_andreas and activate an isolated Python 2.7 environment named geo that contains packages we’ll need, such as pandas, matplotlib, and geopandas.

mkdir san_andreas
cd san_andreas

conda create -n geo python=2.7 pandas matplotlib gdal geopandas ipython jupyter notebook

source activate geo

Now that we’ve set up our analysis environment, let’s download the shapefiles and population data we’ll need for our analysis.


Download Quaternary Faults Shapefile

The geographic data for the San Andreas Fault are available within a shapefile available at the U.S. Geological Survey: The shapefile contains information on many large faults and associated folds in the United States, so we’ll have to extract the specific records associated with the San Andreas fault. For now, let’s download and unzip the USGS’s file with the following two commands:

curl '' -o
unzip -d qfaults

Citation: U.S. Geological Survey and California Geological Survey, 2006, Quaternary fault and fold database for the United States, accessed Jan 4, 2018, from USGS web site:


Download California Census Tracts Shapefile

The geographic data for California’s census tracts are available within a shapefile available at the U.S. Census Bureau: The Census Bureau provides cartographic boundary files, simplified representations of geographic areas, for various geographies, such as state, county, census tract, legislative district, school district, and block group. We’ll conduct our analysis at the census tract level so our measurements occur over relatively small geographic areas, but we’ll present our results at the county level since people are more familiar with California’s counties. Let’s download and unzip the Census Bureau’s file with the following two commands:

curl '' -o
unzip -d cb_2016_06_tract_500k

The filename describes the data in the file. It’s a cartographic boundary (cb_) file from 2016 (2016_) for the State of California (06_) at the census tract level (tract_) at a resolution level of 1:500,000 (500k).


Download California Census Tracts’ Populations

The 2016 population data for California’s census tracts are available from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. You can use the American FactFinder’s Guided Search ( to download the data, or you can use the following command:

curl '*&in=state:06' -o cb_2016_06_tract_B01003.json

The API call describes the data we’re requesting. We’re requesting 2016 total population estimates (B01003_001E) for California’s (state:06) census tracts (tract:*) from the American Community Survey’s 2012-2016 5-year Estimates (acs5). You can view additional API call examples for the ACS’s 5-year estimates at:


Geospatial Analysis

We’re finally ready to begin our analysis and estimate how many people live within ¼, ½, ¾, and 1 mile of the San Andreas Fault! To begin, let’s open IPython or a Jupyter Notebook and import the packages we’ll need:


Let’s import geopandas, pandas, and matplotlib. We’ll need geopandas to read and write spatial data, manage data projections (i.e. mapping coordinates to locations on Earth), and to merge, manipulate, and aggregate spatial data. We’ll need pandas to read the population data and to select, merge, and manage multiple data files. We’ll need matplotlib to create plots of the data and geometries.

from geopandas import read_file
import pandas as pd
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

Process San Andreas Fault Shapefile

Now we can import, select, and clean the data associated with the San Andreas Fault. We’ll use geopandas’ read_file function to read the shapefile. The file contains data for several large faults and folds in the United States, so let’s search for “san andreas” in the faultname column to filter for the data associated with the San Andreas Fault. The file also includes more columns than we need, so let’s select and rename the columns we want to retain. Finally, let’s use geopandas’ to_crs function to project the data to EPSG:3310, California Albers, which is appropriate for displaying and calculating distances in California.

qfaults = read_file('/Users/clinton/Downloads/qfaults/qfaults.shp')
san_andreas = qfaults.loc[qfaults['faultname'].str.contains('san andreas', case=False), :]
san_andreas_columns_to_keep = ['fault_id', 'section_id', 'faultname', 'sectionnam', 'geometry']
san_andreas = san_andreas[san_andreas_columns_to_keep]
san_andreas.columns = ['fault_id', 'section_id', 'fault_name', 'section_name', 'geometry']
san_andreas = san_andreas.to_crs('+init=epsg:3310')


Create San Andreas Fault Buffers

We’re going to create buffers of varying distances around the San Andreas linestring to calculate the amount of overlap between each buffer and census tract. We’ll use this amount of overlap to estimate the portion of the population in each census tract that’s within a specific distance of the fault. Since we’re going to create several buffers, let’s write a function to create the buffers.

Inside the function, create_mp_buffer, we use geopandas’ buffer method to create a buffer around the San Andreas linestring that’s a specific number of meters away from the linestring’s coordinates. Once we’ve created this new set of geometries, we use geopandas’ unary_union method to combine them into a single multipolygon.

def create_mp_buffer(geo, meters):
    segments_with_buffers = geo.buffer(meters)
    multi_polygon = segments_with_buffers.unary_union
    return multi_polygon

Now that we have a function to create buffers around the San Andreas Fault, let’s use it to create buffers that are ¼, ½, ¾, and 1 mile away from the fault. The function uses meters instead of miles, so the numbers in the functions are the respective distances in meters.

quarter_mile = create_mp_buffer(san_andreas, 402.336)
half_mile = create_mp_buffer(san_andreas, 804.672)
three_quarter_mile = create_mp_buffer(san_andreas, 1207.008)
one_mile = create_mp_buffer(san_andreas, 1609.34)


Process California Census Tracts Shapefile

Now that we’ve processed the fault data, let’s turn our attention to the California census tracts data. The processing is similar to the fault data. We read the shapefile, rename the columns, convert the county and tract IDs to integers, and project the data to EPSG:3310, California Albers. We need to convert the county and tract IDs to a specific data type to facilitate the merge between these data and the population data. Finally, we need to project these data to California Albers because all of our geographic data need to be in the same projection to ensure our geometric manipulations, set operations, and distance calculations are correct for our area of interest, California.

ca_tracts = read_file('/Users/clinton/Downloads/cb_2016_06_tract_500k/cb_2016_06_tract_500k.shp')
ca_tracts.columns = ['state_id', 'county_id', 'tract_id', 'aff_geo_id', 'geo_id', 'tract_id_float', 'lsad', 'land_area', 'water_area', 'geometry']
ca_tracts['county_id'] = ca_tracts.county_id.astype(int)
ca_tracts['tract_id'] = ca_tracts.tract_id.astype(int)
ca_tracts = ca_tracts.to_crs('+init=epsg:3310')

Process California Census Tracts’ Populations

Now we can turn our attention to the population data. Let’s use pandas to read the data into a data frame, skipping the first row and selecting the population, county ID, and tract ID columns. Finally, let’s convert the population data into floating-point numbers and the county and tract IDs into integers to facilitate calculations and data frame merges, respectively.

ca_tracts_population = pd.read_json('/Users/clinton/Downloads/cb_2016_06_tract_500k/cb_2016_06_tract_B01003.json')
ca_tracts_population = ca_tracts_population.iloc[1:,[0,2,3]]
ca_tracts_population.columns = ['population_2016', 'county_id', 'tract_id']
ca_tracts_population['population_2016'] = ca_tracts_population.population_2016.astype(float)
ca_tracts_population['county_id'] = ca_tracts_population.county_id.astype(int)
ca_tracts_population['tract_id'] = ca_tracts_population.tract_id.astype(int)

Merge California Census Tracts and Populations

Now that we have a GeoDataFrame with California’s census tracts and a separate DataFrame with the census tracts’ 2016 population values, let’s merge the two data frames so all of the data are in one GeoDataFrame. Since there are similar tract ID numbers for different counties, e.g. county 1 tract 1 and county 2 tract 1, we need to merge the data frames on both county ID and tract ID.

ca_tracts_merged = ca_tracts.merge(ca_tracts_population, on=['county_id', 'tract_id'])

Calculate Populations In The ¼, ½, ¾, and 1 Mile Buffers

Now that we have our California census tracts data and our four San Andreas Fault buffers, let’s calculate, for each buffer region, how much of the buffer area overlaps with each census tract area. Then we can multiply the amount of area overlap by the census tract population to estimate the number of people in the census tract who live within that distance of the San Andreas Fault.

This calculation assumes the population is evenly distributed across the census tract, which isn’t necessarily true, so the result is only an approximation. At the same time, we’re using census tracts instead of counties for this calculation because, since their geographic areas are smaller, the error in this assumption shouldn’t be as great as it would be with counties.

The following for loop iterates over the four fault buffers (i.e. ¼, ½, ¾, and 1 mile from the fault) and, for each one, calculates the area of intersection between the buffer and each census tract, divides the intersection area by the census tract area to calculate the fraction of the census tract area contained in the intersection, and then multiplies this decimal number by the census tract population to estimate the number of people who live within the specified distance from the fault. The code also adds all of these calculated geometries and values as columns in a new GeoDataFrame named merged.

overlap_mps = [quarter_mile, half_mile, three_quarter_mile, one_mile]
overlap_mps_str = ['quarter_mile', 'half_mile', 'three_quarter_mile', 'one_mile']

for idx, mp in enumerate(overlap_mps):
    overlap = ca_tracts_merged['geometry'].intersection(mp) = overlap_mps_str[idx]
    if idx == 0:
        merged = ca_tracts_merged.join(overlap)
        merged['tract_area'] = merged.geometry.area
        merged = merged.join(overlap)
    merged[overlap_mps_str[idx]+'_buffer_area'] = [geo.area for geo in merged[overlap_mps_str[idx]]]
    merged[overlap_mps_str[idx]+'_pct_overlap'] = merged[overlap_mps_str[idx]+'_buffer_area'] /     merged['tract_area']
    merged[overlap_mps_str[idx]+'_affected_pop'] = [round(val) for val in     merged[overlap_mps_str[idx]+'_pct_overlap'] * merged['population_2016']]

Up to this point, we’ve been focused on the census tracts so we haven’t concerned ourselves with having easy-to-read county names. However, since people are more familiar with counties than census tracts, let’s map the county IDs to county names so we can present the results at the county level. Let’s extract the county ID from the geo_id and then create a new column named county that contains the county name, mapped from a dictionary that associates county IDs with county names. The comment line shows where we need to create the dictionary, but I’m going to provide the dictionary at the bottom of this post because it’s long and may be distracting here.

merged['county_id'] = merged['geo_id'].str.slice(2,5)
# CREATE county_mapping HERE
merged['county'] = merged['county_id'].apply(lambda id: county_mapping[id])

Aggregate Data To County Level

Now that we have a column of county names, we can use geopandas’ dissolve function to aggregate the data from the census tract level to the county level. We’ll use the sum function to sum the population values for each of the distances from the fault within each county.

counties = merged.dissolve(by='county', aggfunc='sum')


We’re finally in a position to explore answers to the question that prompted this analysis, namely, how many people live within ¼, ½, ¾, and 1 mile from the San Andreas Fault! First, let’s review the state-wide results. The results suggest that approximately 120,000 people live within ¼ mile, 209,000 people live within ½ mile, 300,000 people live within ¾ mile, and 389,000 people live within one mile of the fault.

counties.loc[counties['one_mile_affected_pop'] > 0.0, ['quarter_mile_affected_pop', 'half_mile_affected_pop', 'three_quarter_mile_affected_pop', 'one_mile_affected_pop']].sum()


Next, let’s review the results by county, for counties where the approximate number of people living within one mile of the fault is greater than 1,000. The results suggest the four counties with the most people living close to the fault are San Mateo, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and Riverside, with the close populations numbering in the tens of thousands. The remaining counties with close populations over 1,000 include Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, Kern, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Sonoma, Marin, and Monterey.

counties.loc[counties['one_mile_affected_pop'] > 1000.0, ['quarter_mile_affected_pop', 'half_mile_affected_pop', 'three_quarter_mile_affected_pop', 'one_mile_affected_pop']].sort_values(by=['one_mile_affected_pop'], ascending=False)



This post explored the question of how many people live within ¼, ½, ¾, and 1 mile from the San Andreas Fault to demonstrate how to use geopandas to conduct a geospatial analysis in Python. The post is meant to illustrate the functionality you can use to explore interesting geospatial questions, rather than provide robust answers to this specific question. There are many other applications for this type of analysis, e.g. exploring the number of people or houses near a coastline, a roadway or transit line, or a utility line. I hope this post has piqued your interest in conducting your own geospatial analysis. If you do have an example to share, please share it because I enjoy reading about others’ projects. Thank you for reading!

San Andreas Fault

By IkluftOwn work, GFDL, Link

county_mapping = {
'001': 'Alameda',
'003': 'Alpine',
'005': 'Amador',
'007': 'Butte',
'009': 'Calaveras',
'011': 'Colusa',
'013': 'Contra Costa',
'015': 'Del Norte',
'017': 'El Dorado',
'019': 'Fresno',
'021': 'Glenn',
'023': 'Humboldt',
'025': 'Imperial',
'027': 'Inyo',
'029': 'Kern',
'031': 'Kings',
'033': 'Lake',
'035': 'Lassen',
'037': 'Los Angeles',
'039': 'Madera',
'041': 'Marin',
'043': 'Mariposa',
'045': 'Mendocino',
'047': 'Merced',
'049': 'Modoc',
'051': 'Mono',
'053': 'Monterey',
'055': 'Napa',
'057': 'Nevada',
'059': 'Orange',
'061': 'Placer',
'063': 'Plumas',
'065': 'Riverside',
'067': 'Sacramento',
'069': 'San Benito',
'071': 'San Bernardino',
'073': 'San Diego',
'075': 'San Francisco',
'077': 'San Joaquin',
'079': 'San Luis Obispo',
'081': 'San Mateo',
'083': 'Santa Barbara',
'085': 'Santa Clara',
'087': 'Santa Cruz',
'089': 'Shasta',
'091': 'Sierra',
'093': 'Siskiyou',
'095': 'Solano',
'097': 'Sonoma',
'099': 'Stanislaus',
'101': 'Sutter',
'103': 'Tehama',
'105': 'Trinity',
'107': 'Tulare',
'109': 'Tuolumne',
'111': 'Ventura',
'113': 'Yolo',
'115': 'Yuba'


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