NR 2003-07 -- COMMENTARY
March 24, 2003

Contact: Ed Wilson
Mark Oldfield
Don Drysdale
(916) 323-1886

Real Earthquakes Are Scarier Than Any Movie

By Darryl Young, Director
California Department of Conservation

A new science fiction movie, “The Core,” opens in theaters March 28 with an interesting premise: The Pentagon’s attempt to harness the power of earthquakes as a weapon causes the Earth’s core to stop rotating. That, in turn, causes all kinds of ecological disasters. The only hope to save the planet is to send a team to the center of the Earth, where, they hope, detonating a cluster of nuclear bombs will jump-start the core’s rotation and save the day.

The possibility of using seismicity as a weapon is certainly edge-of-your-seat stuff. But in the opinion of the California Department of Conservation’s team of seismologists and geologists, it’s not nearly as frightening as the very real threat that earthquakes pose to the state.

California citizens are advised to be prepared or face the consequences: while yelling “cut” may work in the movie business, it doesn’t cut it when the ground starts to tremble.

There are hundreds of known faults in California, and at least a couple of hundred are considered capable of generating damaging earthquakes. More than 70 percent of the state's population resides within 30 miles of a fault where intense ground shaking could occur in the coming decades.

According to the National Earthquake Information Center, there are more than 35 earthquakes a day around the world -- 12,000-14,000 a year. Each year, there is generally one "great" (magnitude 8.0 or more) earthquake somewhere in the world, along with 18 "major" (7.0-7.9), 120 “large" (6.0-6.9) and 1,000 "moderate" (5.0-5.9) earthquakes. California generally experiences two or three temblors a year large enough to cause moderate damage to structures.

To put things in perspective, a magnitude 6.0 quake releases approximately as much energy as 6,270 tons of TNT. Kick it up a notch, to a magnitude 7.0, and you get the energy equivalent of 199,000 tons of dynamite. The real whoppers, though, are spectacularly more powerful: A magnitude 8.0 quake releases as much energy as 6.27 million tons of TNT and a magnitude 9.0 – almost unheard of -- 99 million tons. Unlike the atomic weaponry detonated in “The Core,” all that energy is not focused in one particular spot, but spreads out in waves, sometimes causing widespread devastation.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that knocked down part of the Bay Bridge, collapsed part of the Nimitz Freeway and killed 63 people was a magnitude 6.9 quake. The 1994 Northridge quake that killed 61 and did $40 billion in damage in the Los Angeles area was a magnitude 6.7 temblor. Although California has some of the world’s most stringent building codes, it is estimated that a magnitude 7 or greater earthquake in an urban setting would inevitably cause significant loss of life and more than $100 billion in damage.

In “The Core,” earthquakes are weapons. In real life, ignorance and apathy are the weapons. The movie undoubtedly cost more to make than is spent on earthquake preparedness and awareness.

As we move further in time from the state’s last big earthquake, our memories fade and we feel less urgency to be prepared. Yet, at the same time, we’re getting closer to the next catastrophic quake.

A look at the seismic record makes it apparent that a damaging earthquake somewhere in the state is almost inevitable in the next 20-30 years. It could just as easily happen today or tomorrow. The time to be prepared is now, not after the fact.

Being prepared means talking to your insurance agent about earthquake coverage as well as having at least 72 hours of food and water on hand for each member of your family, a well-stocked first-aid kit, and flashlights and a radio with extra batteries, among other things. The Department of Conservation’s Web site has a section dedicated to earthquakes, including tips on being prepared and links to many other helpful sites.

The screenwriter for “The Core,” John Rogers, holds a degree in physics. Yet surely even he’d admit that the science behind some aspects of the movie is shakier than an un-reinforced masonry building in a 7.0 quake. The idea of constructing a vehicle capable of not only drilling to the Earth’s core but also surviving the heat and pressure involved is a bit out there.

But it is, after all, a science fiction movie, meant to entertain. While the Department of Conservation does not offer movie reviews, we will offer this advice: If you go see the movie, take the plot – as well as your popcorn -- with a grain of salt, and enjoy. And when the movie is over, whether you give it two thumbs up or down, think about the inevitable reality of earthquakes.

Awareness and action lie at the core of preparedness.