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Nope, earthquakes in California won’t trigger eruptions at Yellowstone (and other debunked earthquake myths)

Road damage after the Ridgecrest earthquake. via California Geological Survey and USGS

Especially if you live under a rock, you’ve likely heard of the series of earthquakes that have hit Southern California outside the town of Ridgecrest this past week. So far no deaths or major injuries have been reported, but magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 quakes have caused extensive damage. The quake was felt widespread, with residents as far away as Sacramento and Phoenix feeling the tremors. It's a fantastic example that our planet is dynamic, but a sobering reminder our infrastructure is not.

With any large-scale natural event, the press rush to get the news out to the public. Most will present factual, responsible, and useful information...others miss the mark. While ludicrous headlines can be funny, they can also be dangerous. Let's quickly debunk these myths, and get down to the facts:

Myth: The Ridgecrest earthquake is a precursor to “The Big One”

The Big One refers to a high magnitude earthquake (far stronger than the Ridgecrest) that will eventually occur along the San Andreas fault. The San Andreas is a large fault line extending ~800 miles along the coastline of California, and as brittle tectonic plates try to slide past one another in this area, stress accumulates. Communities are preparing for the eventually that this fault will rupture in a massive earthquake. The Big One is sometimes referred to as being “overdue”, but this is perhaps a mischaracterization. Earthquakes don’t have due dates.
Image result for san andreas hazard map ridgecrest
The Ridgecrest earthquake in comparison to the San Andreas fault. Shades of red denote earthquake risk. Credit: BuzzFeed & USGS Earthquakes

Here’s what’s actually going on: This earthquake did not originate along at the San Andreas fault system. The San Andreas is not the only fault in California, the western US is covered with small faults. The Ridgecrest earthquake occurred on a different network of tiny faults east of the San Andreas, called the Eastern California Shear Zone. Seismologists are still studying the complex inner-working of this fault system, but it is possible that motion along this fault can trigger motion along other faults. Here’s the bottom line though: Ridgecrest is 150 miles away from the San Andreas Fault (at its closest point!). Based on what scientists know about the fault system, a subsequent quake along the San Andreas is a possibility, but it is very, very unlikely.

Myth: California is going to fall into the ocean

An entire state can’t really “fall” into anything.

As the Pacific plate moves northwest and the North American Plate moves southeast, stress accumulates along the San Andreas Fault. via USGS

Here's what’s actually going on: While California has a large number of faults, it's securely attached to the earth’s miles of crust. Also, the Ridgecrest earthquake resulted in horizontal motion along the fault, so rather than moving up or down, the earth has simply been offset to the side. Eventually, motion along the larger San Andreas fault will mean that San Francisco and LA will move closer together. More faults will rupture in the future, but they will not send California into the sea. Rising sea levels however, are not a myth, and will certainly threaten residents across the coast of California in the future. So while seaside cliffs can be swept away by the ocean, entire states cannot.

Myth: Scientists can predict earthquakes

As much as we’d like to, there is no person who can predict earthquakes. These natural processes are far too complex to precisely calculate their timing.

Here’s what we can do: Scientists can assess the probability of an earthquake occurring over a certain period of time, and ensure that communities are ready for earthquakes when they do occur. The forecast is based on a model that uses the tectonic history and statistical probabilities to estimate future events. As of July 9th, the USGS Aftershock Forecast states that a quake above magnitude 7.1 has a 1% chance of occurring, but the area will likely experience 220 to 339 aftershocks magnitude 3 or higher. So we know for certain that future earthquakes will happen, we can’t move our schedules around for them.

Myth: Mercury in retrograde is causing earthquakes

The positions of celestial objects are unrelated to the motion of tectonic plates. Next.

Myth: The Ridgecrest earthquake is going to trigger a cataclysmic supereruption at Yellowstone Caldera

Last but not least, this ridiculous idea was posted in a headline by both the Daily Express and Fox News. To be crystal clear, earthquakes in California are not related to activity in Yellowstone whatsoever.

The epicenter of the Ridgecrest earthquake is very far from Yellowstone, as indicated by this map.

Here’s what’s actually going on: There are so many reasons why this can’t happen. An earthquake can’t impact a volcano over 1150 miles away. Yes, earthquakes can occur before, during, and after volcanic eruptions, and in rare cases, earthquakes can trigger eruptions. For this to occur, however, the volcano must already be poised to erupt. The Yellowstone Caldera is not. Because there are no other signs of an eruption (i.e. ground deformation, volcanic gas emissions, unusual seismic activity), we can be confident that this earthquake had no effect on the Yellowstone Supervolcano.

Additionally, larger and more proximal earthquakes have occurred near Yellowstone, and none have triggered any eruptions. Earthquakes at Yellowstone are common because there are lots of faults in the area: they are not harbingers of impending volcanic armageddon! Research scientists are closely monitoring the area, and have not observed any other signs of an impending eruption. No cause for alarm here.

How can I combat misinformation?

The internet is full of information, which is great! It is, however, important to be aware of where your information is coming from. When natural disasters strike, there are many ways you can inoculate yourself against misinformation. First, if something looks like clickbait, it probably is. Tabloids like The Daily Mail and Daily Express tend to be the main offenders in this category, but even mainstream news outlets can write misleading headlines. For the most accurate info, follow news sources you can trust; for earthquakes, you can follow the USGS, or expert scientists on social media, or a trusted and transparent news outlet. If you suspect something is misinformation, you can personally debunk it too!

–Lissie Connors

Lissie Connors (@LissieOfficial) covers social media and writes about science for Physics Central and the American Physical Society. When she’s not internally combusting from bad science headlines, she enjoys cycling and petting dogs.


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