FILM

What's fact and what's fiction in earthquake film San Andreas?

Hollywood's latest earthquake epic is a thrilling blend of fact and fiction

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 11:47pm

The San Andreas Fault awakens, unleashing back-to-back jolts that leave a trail of destruction from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Skyscrapers crumble. Fires erupt. The letters of the Hollywood sign topple. Tsunami waves swamp the Golden Gate Bridge.

Hollywood's favourite geological bad guy is back in San Andreas, a fantastical look at one of the world's real seismic threats.

The San Andreas has long been considered one of the most dangerous earthquake faults because of its length. At nearly 1,280km long, it cuts through California like a scar and is responsible for some of the largest shakers in state history.

In the film, directed by Brad Peyton, a previously unknown fault near the Hoover Dam in Nevada ruptures and jiggles the San Andreas. Southern California is rocked by a powerful magnitude-9.1 quake followed by an even stronger magnitude-9.6 event in Northern California.

US Geological Survey (USGS) seismologist Susan Hough, who attended an advance screening of the film, says the San Andreas will indeed break again, and without warning. "We are at some point going to face a big earthquake," she says.

The San Andreas is notorious for producing big ones, but a magnitude-9 or larger is virtually impossible because the fault is not long or deep enough, Hough says.

The most powerful earthquakes in recorded history have struck along offshore subduction zones where one massive tectonic plate dives beneath another. The 1960 magnitude-9.5 quake off Chile is the current world record holder.

The San Andreas has revealed its awesome power before. In 1906, a magnitude 7.8 reduced parts of San Francisco to fiery rubble. Nearly five decades earlier, a similar-sized quake rattled the southern end of the fault.

In 2008, the USGS led a team of 300 experts that wrote a script detailing what would happen if a magnitude 7.8 hit the southern San Andreas. They wanted to create a science-based crisis scenario that can be used for preparedness drills.

The lesson: it doesn't take a magnitude 9 or greater to wreak havoc. Researchers calculated a magnitude 7.8 would cause 1,800 deaths and 50,000 injuries. Hundreds of old brick buildings and concrete structures, and a few high-rise steel buildings would collapse.

Computer models show the San Andreas is capable of producing a magnitude-8.3 quake, but anything larger is dubious.

In the film, seismologist Lawrence Hayes (played by Paul Giamatti) notices spikes in "magnetic pulses" that light up California like a Christmas tree, heralding a monster quake.

Despite a century of research, earthquake prediction remains elusive. Scientists can't predict when a jolt is coming and are generally pessimistic about ever having that ability. Every warning sign scrutinised - animal behaviour, weather patterns, electromagnetic signals, atmospheric observations, levels of radon gas in soil or groundwater - has failed.

"We wish it were as simple as the movie portrays. It isn't. Researchers have scoured every imaginable signal trying to find reliable precursors, but nothing has panned out," Hough says.

The latest focus has been on creating early warning systems that give residents and businesses a few seconds' heads up after a quake hits, but before strong shaking is felt.

Japan has the most advanced seismic alert system in the world while the US is testing a prototype.

Unlike in the film, the San Andreas can't spawn tsunamis. Most tsunamis are triggered by underwater quakes, but they can also be caused by landslides, volcanoes and even meteor impacts.

It doesn’t take a magnitude 9 or greater to wreak havoc. US researchers calculated a magnitude 7.8 would cause 1,800 deaths and 50,000 injuries

Giant tsunami waves are formed when the earth's crust violently shifts, displacing huge amounts of seawater. The larger the magnitude, the more these waves can race across the ocean without losing energy.

The San Andreas is a strike-slip fault, in which opposing blocks of rocks slide past each other horizontally. A big San Andreas quake can spark fires and other mayhem, but it can't displace water and flood San Francisco.

Hough says the movie has got one aspect right: the tide suddenly ebbing out signals a tsunami is coming. More than 80 - mostly small - tsunamis have been observed along California's coast in the past, triggered mainly by faraway quakes.

In the film, the scientist warns that shaking can be felt on the East Coast. But even the largest possible San Andreas quake won't rattle the East Coast (sorry New York). While seismic waves from great quakes can make the earth reverberate like a bell, the ringing can only be detected by sensitive instruments because it's so low.

Historical accounts show shaking from the 1906 San Andreas quake was barely felt in western Nevada and southern Oregon, Hough says.

When the ground starts to shake, the seismologist makes the ideal public service announcement: "Drop, cover and hold on."

Since 2008, millions of people in California and elsewhere have participated in yearly disaster drills in which they practise diving under a table and learn other preparedness tips. If you're outdoors when the ground moves, experts recommend bracing against a wall, similar to what search-and-rescue helicopter pilot Ray Gaines, played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, tells scared survivors in the movie.

"Having Paul Giamatti shouting, 'drop, cover and hold on!' and The Rock telling people to crouch against a wall if they can is one heck of a PSA," Hough says.

Associated Press

San Andreas is out now

 

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