As I type this up from my perch in Houston -- an area more at risk for a meteor impact than a major earthquake -- learning of one of the first ever, "earthquake advisories" issued for Los Angeles sounds like something out of the movies. Geologists with the California Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council (CEPEC) say a 7.0 could hit at any moment either today or tomorrow.
The reason for the hype? A large grouping of micro-quakes have occurred with high frequency -- one after another -- under the Salton Sea, a lake located directly on the San Andreas fault southeast of Los Angeles. Earth scientists say this, "swarm" of quakes could act like the wick to a firework, triggering the infamous San Andreas fault to unleash a historic and devastating 7.0+ quake right through our nation's 2nd largest city. The San Andreas fault typically shakes once every 200 years, but according to geological history it hasn't since the 17th century. If 1680 was the last big one, LA is about 136 years overdue!
We've only popularly speculated what could happen in summertime blockbusters like, "San Andreas" with The Rock and in B-movies like, "10.0 Earthquake" (which was actually pretty entertaining.) While the state of California wouldn't separate from the continent and while LA would not be sent plummeting into the sea, its countless warehouses, movie studios, cinder block buildings, scores of downtown skyscrapers, its theme parks and bridges -- all could break apart with debris falling to the streets below. A 7.0 in LA would mean that that the ground could shake for one minute straight, with violent aftershocks for days after. Fires from broken natural gas lines, impassible roads from fallen overpasses, and general mayhem would result in looting and general anarchy. The National Guard would have to swoop in -- like ASAP -- in a huge mobilization.
If LA does get a huge earthquake, it'll be horrible -- but scientifically, it'll be a landmark in earthquake forecasting. So far, there have been no successful earthquake warnings and consequently millions of lives worldwide have been lost. If they get it right, it'll not only shake up LA, but the whole world.
The chance for this happening today is roughly double what it is on any other day: only 1 in 3000. But, some geologists estimate using this same data says that there's only a 1 in 100 chance in the next day or so! In the real world, that's thankfully still a generally small chance, but if it was going to happen sometimes soon anyway, this would be the time.
With such a high risk why is life going on as usual? Schools haven't closed, work hasn't been canceled and a the largest evacuation in the history of the United States hasn't commenced. Is that a recipe for large scale disaster?
When asked, USGS seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones says,
.@Shanadealton You want to evacuate all SoCal for a 1% chance of an EQ? You'd kill more people in traffic accidents than the EQ would.— Dr. Lucy Jones (@DrLucyJones) October 1, 2016
She makes a compelling argument. We certainly saw that in the evacuation of Hurricane Rita when over 100 people died from evacuation-related accidents instead of from the actual hurricane.
Social media provides a nice reflection of how locals are coping, using dark humor to keep a cool head.
So how are folks reacting who believe this will just blow over?
That apathy is exactly why issuing forecasts have been avoided in the past. There was a fear becoming, "the boy who cried wolf" ... or, "chicken little", who said the sky was falling.