The researchers found that large ruptures have occurred as often as every 45 to 144 years along the Carrizo Plain portion of the fault, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles. That's a sharp departure from previous estimates that major quakes occurred along the fault every 250 to 400 years.
But there has been an extended lull. The last large quake along the fault was in 1857, more than 150 years ago.
"If you're waiting for somebody to tell you when we're close to the next San Andreas earthquake, just look at the data," said UCI seismologist Lisa Grant Ludwig.
While the UCI-ASU study found that temblors occurred much more frequently, it also determined that not all of the quakes were as strong as originally thought, but they still ranged between magnitude-6.5 and 7.9.
"We've learned that earthquake recurrence along the San Andreas fault is complex," said Ramon Arrowsmith, geology professor at ASU. "While earthquakes may be more frequent, they may also be smaller. That's a bit of good news to offset the bad."
Ken Hednut, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the researchers work was rigorously field-checked by scientists.
"I believe they've done a really careful job," he said. "When people come up with new results challenging old notions, others need to see the evidence for themselves."
The study found that the last major quake along the fault was the magnitude-7.8 Fort Tejon quake in 1857.
"People should not stick their heads in the ground,'' Ludwig said. "There are storm clouds gathered on the horizon. Does that mean it's definitely going to rain? No, but when you have that many clouds, you think, 'I'm going to take my umbrella with me today.' That's what this research does: It gives us a chance to prepare.''