Coming to a theater near you – but only if the theater still exists – the premiere of the earthquake disaster film titled “San Andreas.”
The reason I added “if the theater still exists” is because some prognosticators are suggesting a 9.8-magnitude earthquake actually will knock down a good chunk of the state sometime Thursday, meaning the real thing will come before the projectors start rolling on Friday.
Folks love to scare each other, whether its through doomsday predictions like the ones made by the preacher in Oakland a couple of years ago or disaster movies like “Earthquake (1974).” Hollywood is taking yet another crack at the earthquake genre, this time with better computer-enhanced imagery. How else can you explain a preview in which a cruise ship goes flying into downtown San Francisco (or Los Angeles; it’s hard to tell), a tidal wave sends a wall of water east when it should be heading west, buildings fall like dominoes and Hoover Dam crumbles, sending yet another wall of water – the movie really likes walls of water – down the Colorado River canyon?
Fine, but there also is the matter of the real earthquake predicted and how seriously to take it. Obviously, you always want to be as prepared as possible for the total destruction of the West Coast. I was in San Francisco, and specifically in the upper deck of Candlestick Park, when the Loma Prieta quake hit in 1989. There’s nothing glib or funny about the loss of life and destruction a major earthquake can cause.
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The Central Valley, fortunately, never feels them as violently as the coastal areas and the Sierra Nevada.
So what are the odds of the Big One really happening? Good, someday. Just not Thursday or Friday, said the man who came within 40 minutes of predicting last August’s Napa earthquake.
I chatted this week with David Nabhan, who spent 20 years teaching science in Southern California before moving to Pennsylvania a few years ago. He’s had some successes in earthquake predicting, even though he will be the first to tell you he doesn’t predict precisely when earthquakes will occur, only the time frames when they are more likely to happen. He also correctly predicted the 6.4 Susanville quake in May 2013, but missed on his call for another on or about July 22 of that same year.
Sometimes he gets close – really close. He wrote, “Earthquake Prediction: Answers in Plain Sight/Times and Dates When the Next Great Tremor Might Strike” two years in advance of the 6.0 quake that damaged Napa in August 2014. It struck Aug. 24 at 3:20 a.m., about 40 minutes ahead of the time he’d predicted in his book.
Nabhan bases his advisories on historical data, plate tectonics, lunar and solar tides, solstices and equinoxes. Most big quakes, he said, occur between either 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. He also believes earthquake activity is enhanced by the pull of the sun and the moon on the earth, an effect called syzygy.
So you would think he’d be among those who believe the Big One will hit Thursday, when as many as five planets align to impact the Earth, right?
Wrong. The chances of those planets triggering a quake, he said, “are zero. And you can quote me on that.”
Which I planned to do anyway. Nabhan believes only the sun and moon have the pull to impact the Earth. The other planets in the solar system are simply too far away or otherwise not powerful enough. And he admits even his own theory of the sun and the moon causing earthquakes by “sloshing trillions of tons of ocean” that might impact the tectonic plates isn’t precise. He thinks it simply makes sense.
Nor does he buy into the predicted magnitude – a 9.8 – that would make last month’s devastating 7.8 Nepal earthquake seem benign by comparison.
“There cannot be a 9.8 on the San Andreas Fault,” Nabhan said. “That is impossible.”
It’s too shallow and too short to create that kind of magnitude, he said.
The prediction isn’t coming from the U.S. Geological Survey or university scientists who study earthquakes for a living and have great seismic equipment. It came from someone who posted a YouTube video and cites Nostradamus, who predicted, “The trembling so hard in the month of May,” according to one of the many websites promoting the prediction. (Napa, by the way, was hit by a 4.1-magnitude quake on May 22, causing officials to close an older bridge.)
And it’s not coming from Nabhan, who shares my wariness of an earthquake predicted to happen the day before a premiere of an earthquake disaster film.
“It smells,” he said.
No matter. He’s been receiving emails and calls over the past week from people wanting his input.
“They’re asking, ‘What the hell’s going on?,’ ” Nabhan said. “ ‘What’s your opinion?’ Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way, but nothing is going to happen (Thursday).”
His advice? Enjoy the movie Friday. The California coast will still be intact after the closing credits.
Uh ... we hope.