California faces more than a lack of rain. The Los Angeles Times declared that California is in an earthquake drought, and the end of the drought will bring destructive results.
When Will the Next Big Earthquake Strike?
In this L.A. Times article, experts paint a clear (and unsettling) picture of a big quake waiting to happen. In fact, California earthquakes are inevitable. We don’t know when or where, but we do know that an earthquake will happen:
“Earthquakes must happen at some point to relieve the immense tectonic forces that are pushing part of the state northwest toward Alaska and the rest southeast toward Mexico.”
While it could be nice to say this drought is good news–who doesn’t like a break from earthquakes, right? –it isn’t. A drought means that there has been more time for tension to build up in the earth’s crust without a way to relieve the tension:
“[There may be periods] where things get kind of all locked up and no earthquakes happen for a while. You store a lot of strain in the Earth’s crust. Once it gets going, it’s like a set of dominoes. You might get multiple events if you have enough strain energy stored in the crust because it’s been a long time since an earthquake.”
Tom Jordan, USC Professor
The New Earthquake Era
This drought also means that Californians aren’t necessarily prepared for a large-scale quake. The last California earthquake that was greater than 7 magnitude was in 1857. The 6.7 magnitude Northridge quake was in 1994 and the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta quake was in 1989. There are people alive today who have no personal experience with earthquakes of this size, and there isn’t anyone alive today that would have experienced a California quake as big as the earthquake of 1857.
First-hand experience of a major earthquake tragically brings awareness to the forefront, and few Californians have that experience. Earthquakes almost seem like a myth to some people in California despite the major earthquakes the Loma Prieta and Northridge quakes and other quakes that have struck other countries in recent years. Only 10% of California homeowners have earthquake insurance coverage, and many of those homeowners live within thirty miles of an active fault.
Experts say that it’s important to be prepared. There is, potentially, an entirely new era of earthquakes looming ahead with more frequent (or destructive) events.
If you were to search the internet for “Earthquake Movies,” you may (or may not) be surprised with how many results you’ll find. San Andreas, Apocalypse, and 10.5 are three recent films that paint a grim story of the likely earthquake and the speculative aftermath. Is Hollywood onto something, or do these movies push more earthquake myths than fact?
Hollywood may get some things right and other things wrong when it comes to earthquake science. How much of the hype should you believe? We know that a massive earthquake is overdue for the West Coast and Pacific Northwest. What happens when an earthquake of cinematic scale strikes? These earthquake myths and facts will set the record straight.
Earthquake Myths and Facts
Myth 1: “Stand in a doorway when an earthquake strikes.”
Fact: Perhaps this was once an accepted practice, or maybe an old wives’ tale, but now experts firmly discourage standing in a doorway during a quake. Modern building practices make the doorway no safer than any other part of the house. The door, as it swings on its hinges, is likely to strike you and injure you. A doorway also doesn’t protect you from falling objects and debris, and, instead of protecting your head and neck, you’ll be holding onto the doorframe trying to stay in place. Forget this myth, and take cover under a table or a sturdy surface.
Myth 2: “Earthquakes only happen late at night or early in the morning.”
Fact: Earthquakes can and do happen any time of the day or night. People are more likely to remember the ones that either fit a specific pattern or surprised them the most. However, earthquakes happen throughout the day, and not all are as memorable or noticeable.
Myth 3: “Earthquake faults can swallow people and buildings.”
Fact: This is one of the big Hollywood earthquake myths. Sometimes, writers have used earthquake faults to do-away with a character, like taking quicksand to a whole new level. The science of earthquake faults is simple: earthquakes are caused by friction. Friction is caused by objects rubbing together. If the ground could move away from a fault (instead of across a fault), the fault would open up. If the fault opens up, there is no friction. No friction means no earthquake.
Myth 4: “California is going to break off from the United States and sink into the ocean.”
Fact: Californians may laugh about this one, but this earthquake myth is pervasive throughout the United States. Experts on plate tectonics have determined that the motion of the plates located on the West Coast have eliminated this threat. In fact, western California is moving horizontally along the San Andreas fault and up and around the mountains to the northeast of the Los Angeles basin. This means that the land on both sides of the San Andreas fault is moving closer together, not farther apart. Finally, the ocean is not a giant hole for the ground to fall into– instead, there’s just more land with water above it.
Myth 5: “Buildings are good because we have building codes.”
Fact: Unless we are checking codes regularly, it is not likely that the building is earthquake-ready. This means we have more old buildings that are in need of updates. Retrofitting is the responsibility of the building’s owner. Checking to make sure your building has been retrofitted to code can save lives.
Myth 6: “Earthquakes can be predicted by the weather.”
Fact: This is another earthquake myth because the source of the shaking starts far below the surface of the land. The surface weather has little to do with the chance of an earthquake. Human bias has continued this myth: the weather on the day of the earthquake coincidently fits a biased pattern, and that pattern is conveniently remembered and applied to future instances.
Myth 7: “Animals can predict an earthquake.”
Fact: This is half-myth and half-truth. There isn’t any evidence that can prove this theory without a doubt. People have been able to observe some behavior changes in animals before earthquakes, but these changes haven’t been consistent enough to make a definitive connection between animals and earthquakes.
Myth 8: “Earthquakes are more frequent now.”
Fact: Lack of evidence debunks this earthquake myth. Our ability to measure earthquakes with advances in science and technology has made us more aware of earthquakes previously unnoticed.
Myth 9: “We can predict earthquakes.”
Fact: This is one of the earthquake myths that we hope is true one day. Scientists attempt to calculate the possibility of earthquakes using patterns and research. However, there is no true scientific way to determine when an earthquake will occur. Because of this uncertainty, seismologists, government officials, insurance companies, and researchers all encourage individuals to be proactive when it comes to safety and preparedness. We don’t know exactly when the next earthquake will strike, but we do know that it will happen. Your role in preparedness could save lives, prevent your financial ruin, and keep you safe.
Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine what a colossal earthquake can do. Sure, there are plenty of creative interpretations in literature and cinema. What would a mega-quake do for a modern-day California city like Los Angeles?
The results would be catastrophic. It may not be what we see in the movies, but the reality would be heart-wrenching to consider.
Modern-Day Mega-Quakes of 2017
For a modern-day example, all we need to do is to review the 2017 year of natural disasters that plagued the world.
On September 7th, 2017, the 8.2 magnitude Mexico earthquake struck off the southern coast. It was the largest to strike the country in almost a century. Another 7.1 magnitude earthquake happened 11 days after the first 8.2 magnitude quake. The 7.1 magnitude quake was closer to Mexico City. Hundreds more perished in the second quake. Similar to California and the Pacific Northwest, Mexico has its fair share of seismic activity that has caused horrific damage and injury. This massive earthquake was a terrible reminder that big quakes don’t come often, but they can happen with devastating impact.
The Mega-Quake of the Future
Scientists have said that Southern California could experience a similar earthquake as massive as 7 to 8 magnitude. Because the last mega-quake was in 1857, it’s only a matter of time before the next quake ruptures the San Andreas fault. The USGS predicts that the San Andreas Fault has a 22% chance of a 6.7 or greater magnitude earthquake by 2043.
Imagine that every city in Southern California from Palm Springs to San Luis Obispo is damaged or completely destroyed. The experience of an 8-magnitude quake is only imaginable, but not outside the realm of possibilities considering the area’s last mega-quake in 1857 reached an estimated 7.8 magnitude tremor. Of course, that was when the cities were not the developed metropolises of today.
How would a Southern California Mega-Quake be different?
The shaking would be more intense.
The 8.2 Mexico quake struck under the ocean and in a sparsely populated area. People in inland cities did not experience the full force of the “violent” shaking that the 8-magnitude quake unleashed. If the San Andreas fault ruptured at a similar magnitude, the shaking could start at the Salton Sea and run north to Monterey County. A San Andreas Fault earthquake would be much shallower and run right through counties like Riverside, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles. The fault is, after all, only 30 miles away from downtown Los Angeles.
To get a better idea of the comparison between the Mexico earthquake and how it would feel in Los Angeles, the Northridge earthquake of 1994 is the best example of how a shallow and powerful quake could shake a neighborhood. The 2017 Mexico quakes registered higher magnitudes, but the shallowness and closeness of the Northridge quake make the two events similar in their perceived intensity for residents.
All in all, an 8-magnitude earthquake in Los Angeles would feel more intense than both the 2017 Mexico earthquakes and the 1994 Northridge quake.
The initial impact and resulting damage would create a higher death toll.
The USGS performed a study in 2008 to understand how deadly an earthquake of this size and location would be. This study was called the ShakeOut Scenario. This study estimated that as many as 1,800 people could perish from the combined initial shock and resulting infrastructure damage. It would rank as one of the worst natural disasters in United States history. Of that 1,800, half of the death toll would result from fires. Los Angeles County would have the largest number of casualties, and 50,000 more people would be injured.
A mega-quake would isolate Southern California.
First of all, the Southern California region is surrounded by mountains and earthquake faults. The network of dangerous terrain and crisscrossed fault lines would make evacuation extremely difficult. A mega-quake would damage major roadways to the east that cross the San Andreas fault. A vehicle would not be able to navigate these damaged roads.
Secondly, the area would lose 88% of its water supply from damaged aqueducts crossing the fault. Pipelines carrying natural gas and gasoline would break which would provide the perfect fuel for explosions after a spark. The smaller fires would merge into larger fires. First responders wouldn’t have the water supply to extinguish the infernos.
Larger buildings or older buildings may completely collapse and leave great numbers of people without housing. A recent study found that as many as 1,000,000 people could be displaced by a mega-quake, and there would be no solution to house all of these victims.
Most of the western United States would lose access to power for several days. Surrounding areas may have power restored, but the infrastructure damage would make it difficult to make quick repairs. Overall, you’ve got a pretty poor combination of limited access to solutions, resources, and outside help.
Prepare for the Mega-Quake.
When will we see a quake of this size? Unfortunately, there is no way to say when this mega-quake will strike. We do know that the area is overdue for a large-scale earthquake–given the amount of time since the last “big one”–but the variability of 60 to 300 years that lapse between large earthquakes makes it difficult to pinpoint a practical pattern. In the past, Southern California has had a large quake every 110 to 114 years. The tectonic plates that caused the 2017 Mexico earthquakes are not the same as the plates that comprise the San Andreas Fault, but it is the same kind of tectonic forces that are building friction underneath Southern California.
Research released last week means troubling news for the San Diego area. This new research found that the fault line under San Diego “can produce stronger and more frequent earthquakes than previously thought”. This follows the March announcement that a newly discovered link between fault lines in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties could mean the next big quake could be 30 times more powerful than the deadly 6.4 magnitude Long Beach quake of 1933.
Living in an earthquake-prone area without a preparation plan can mean disaster for your wallet and for your safety. Visit us at www.geovera.com to learn some ways you can get prepared or to find an earthquake insurance agent near you for expert advice.