Admit it, there’s nothing more fun than sitting in a dark theatre, munching on a bucket of buttery popcorn, and watching the Earth get demolished. In the latest round of catastrophic flicks, California is destroyed as the famous San Andreas Fault unleashes unimaginable (and unrealistic) devastation across the state.
The new film, San Andreas, depicts the rupture of an unknown fault near the Hoover Dam in Nevada, which gets the destructive ball rolling by setting off powerful earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault. And although earthquakes are nothing new to Californians, and pose serious threats along the famous fault, Hollywood has once again thrown caution (and science) to the wind in order to feed our catastrophic needs.
The San Andreas Fault is a very real hazard. At almost 800 miles long, the fault marks the boundary where the North American plate meets the Pacific plate. And it’s the movement of these plates against each other that causes the powerful quakes characteristic to the region.
A recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey shows the inevitability of just such a quake, which is predicted to hit within the next couple of decades.
“The new likelihoods are due to the inclusion of possible multi-fault ruptures, where earthquakes are no longer confined to separate, individual faults, but can occasionally rupture multiple faults simultaneously,” lead author of the study and USGS scientist, Ned Field says. “This is a significant advancement in terms of representing a broader range of earthquakes throughout California’s complex fault system.”
The study shows that the likelihood of a magnitude 8 or larger earthquake in the next 30 years has risen from about 4.7 percent to around 7 percent, based on recent findings. However, the area most at risk is along the southern end of the fault, not the northern end near San Francisco.
Scientists are actively working to improve warning systems. By monitoring sensors buried deep in the earth, seismologists are able to produce forecasts for future quakes. The Third Uniform California Rupture Forecast, or UCERF3, is the latest to make predictions as to the likelihood of California’s next big event.
“We are fortunate that seismic activity in California has been relatively low over the past century,” Southern California Earthquake Center Director, Tom Jordan says. “But we know that tectonic forces are continually tightening the springs of the San Andreas Fault system, making big quakes inevitable.”
Are there any lessons to be learned from the new blockbuster? Not really. The advanced warning systems depicted in the movie are still the stuff of fiction. As for destruction? Yes, buildings will crumble, lives will be lost, and the devastation could certainly be widespread. But a tsunami? Not according to geologists. The San Andreas is a strike-slip fault, meaning the plates are grinding past each other horizontally as opposed to vertically. Quakes that trigger tsunamis typically occur underwater and are usually set off when vertically-opposing plates buckle and snap, displacing large amounts of seawater that create the enormous waves.
At least that’s one less thing for Californians to worry about.