The new movie San Andreas, starring Dwayne Johnson (better known as The Rock), is about a California earthquake so powerful that it destroys Los Angeles and San Francisco, and people can feel it all the way over on the East Coast.
Could this really happen? And can earthquakes ever be predicted, as one scientist (played by Paul Giamatti) succeeds in doing in this movie? We did some fact-checking with seismologist Lucile Jones of the U.S. Geological Survey.
On the accuracy of the film’s premise of an earthquake “swarm”
Actually, we don’t use the term “swarm.” Swarm is for when they’re all in the same location. But this idea of a triggered earthquake — that an earthquake in Nevada could set off an earthquake in Los Angeles — we’ve seen that. In 1992, a 7.3 in Southern California set off a 5.7 in Nevada. The 1906 earthquake in San Francisco set off a magnitude 6 near the Mexican border. So that distant triggering is actually a core part of the earthquake process.
On whether earthquakes can be predicted
When I started my career 30 years ago, I would have [said], “Yeah, that’s what we’re trying for!” But everything we looked at, none of it worked. So now we can recognize that an earthquake’s begun so quickly that we get the information to you before the shaking gets to you. That doesn’t give you a lot of warning. Unfortunately, what they’re doing in the movie has really been shown to not work.
On the movie’s portrayal of earthquake safety
That in-the-doorway mythology has been floating around for a really long time. [Standing in] doorways began, actually, from a Red Cross volunteer inthe 1952 earthquake that saw a collapsed adobe house with the lintel still standing. And said, “Wow, the door must be a good place to be,” and they started teaching that. And it’s true — if you’re in a 200-year-old adobe house. In any modern construction, the doorway’s no stronger than anywhere else and it usually has a door and that door is gonna be flopping back and forth during the earthquake. And we’ve seen a bunch of injuries, people being hit by the door.
So what you’re trying to do in an earthquake is you’re trying to protect yourself from flying objects. That’s why going under a table is a good idea. We used to just say, “Duck and cover.” Now we say, “Drop, cover, hold on,” because in strong shaking, the table may be trying to go somewhere else.