Tuesday, December 28, 2021

A History of the Drought in Three Pictures.


Castle Crags on December 27, 2021
It's nice to be able to report some good news once in a great while. Global warming models for California paint a truly depressing picture going forward of crippling droughts, failing snowpacks, and many tough choices to make regarding water use. We've been living those models for the past few decades with a five-year drought ending in 2017, and one of the worst drought years in history just last year. We are coming to depend more and more on the occasional intense atmospheric river events to fill reservoirs in preparation for the dry years. They've been in short supply in recent years.

My family-related travels have encapsulated the story of California's precarious water situation. The pandemic had prevented many forays north to Oregon and Washington, but we managed a trip last April, and we just completed a rather harrowing trip today. These trips were a lesson in contrasts.

We always try to take a break at Castle Crags State Park near Dunsmuir and Mt. Shasta. The granite peaks are geologically the equivalent of the Sierra Nevada, but geographically they are part of the Klamath Mountains (which were displaced west from the Sierra millions of years ago). The Crags are shorter than the adjacent Sierra Nevada, but the loftiest peaks reach 6,500 feet, which allowed for glacial erosion during the Pleistocene Ice Ages.

Castle Crags on December 18, 2021
When we visited last April, the forest surrounding the crags was frighteningly dry (below). What should have been a damp forest floor with streams swollen by meltwater was like a tinder box waiting for the spark that would ignite an inferno. Like the rest of the mountains surrounding the Central Valley, the snowpack was gone, literally 5% of a normal year. 

When we left on our trip on December 18, things were looking up a little. There had been a surprising strong storm in late October that had dropped some snow on the mountains, but warmer weather had melted much of it. A dry November left the snowpack at 19% of normal.

Then a bunch of storms coincided with our trip plans. When we stopped in at Castle Crags on December 18th, there was a delightful cover of snow on the peaks (the picture above). It seemed a promising beginning of a decent snowpack.

We were in Seattle area at the beginning of one of the biggest snow events in the city's history. We left the city on freeways so covered in ice that the lane dividers couldn't be seen, and everyone guessed (only somewhat correctly) where those lanes were. Spinouts and accidents were everywhere, and it took us nearly four hours to go the first hundred miles towards the south. We eventually outran the storm but stopped for the night in Oregon were the storm caught back up to us. 

Our next day was 380 miles of icy anxiety, but luckily the roads were clear when we reached the top of the Siskiyou Mountains and Mt. Shasta. But what huge amount of snow had fallen! Looking at the top photo in the post, you can see the high peaks were literally coated in snow.

Castle Crags on April 23, 2021
In a more official vein, the Sierra Nevada had jumped from 19% to 159% of normal snowpack in the space of three weeks (below). We've received the 52% of the total amount of snow year, with three normally wet months to go. And at least two more storms are forecast in the next ten days. It's really good news, a possible respite from the long-term drought that has been gripping the region. But it's a real mess if you have to be traveling in it.

Source: Snow Pack Conditions - Snow Water Content Chart (ca.gov)
But the snowpack is not the whole story. Reservoirs across the state reached critically low levels in two years of drought (below), and it will take more than a couple of good storms to build them up again. A heavy snowpack is great, but warm periods can prematurely melt and evaporate the ice. I'm going to stay optimistic, but my mind is telling me that this is a respite, not a solution to our problems. If we get a good water year, we will still face imminent droughts and depleted groundwater reservoirs. We need to face the problems, and not put them off. 

Source: Interactive map of water levels for major reservoirs in California | American Geosciences Institute
But it sure was nice to see all that snow!

Friday, December 24, 2021

Hoping All a Peaceful Christmas and a Better New Year

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all! As is my (sometimes neglected) tradition, I offer up a very big Christmas tree, the General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon National Park. The tree is so large (268 feet high, 40 feet across at the base) that it took three pictures for me to capture it.

I don't have a shot of the General Grant all dressed in snow, so here is another Sequoia after a surprise storm during an April trip some years ago.
The tree was declared by Calvin Coolidge in 1926 to be the nation's Christmas Tree. At an early ceremony, park superintendent Colonel John White said ""We are gathered here around a tree that is worthy of representing the spirit of America on Christmas Day. That spirit is best expressed in the plain things of life, the love of the family circle, the simple life of the out-of-doors. The tree is a pillar that is a testimony that things of the spirit transcend those of the flesh.

Individual trees can live for several thousand years, but the genus has existed since the time of the dinosaurs. They once grew across the northern hemisphere until they were done in by the Ice Ages. They survive today in several dozen groves scattered across the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.

It has really been a tough couple of years with droughts and other natural disasters. I am especially mourning the loss of so many Sequoia trees to wildfires. In the last two years, some 20 percent of all the Sequoia trees on this planet were destroyed. As we celebrate the beauty of these wonderful trees, we must acknowledge our role in their destruction, through climate change and misguided management of the groves. A horrible loss but the trees persist through it all.

It's odd to write of loss and tragedy in a post about a "happy" holiday season, but this holiday season has that sense of gloom and loss as well. I'm seeing people I've not seen in a long time, but we've had to be very careful, and the potential for tragedy continues in the form of a tiny but virulent virus that is surging for a fourth time. There is loss, but there is resilience as well, and that is my hope for all of you that you'll discover joy despite the losses we have all experienced.

I wish a wondrous season to you all!

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Sure It's Safe...Until It Isn't. Don't be a Scour Critical Bridge


Source: https://hickmanbridge.com/#

It's a bridge. Just like tens of thousands of other bridges across the country. It was pretty modern when I moved to my little town in the Great Valley of California. It crosses the Tuolumne River about 12 miles upstream of Modesto, and it's a fairly important transportation corridor that carries a lot of traffic including heavily loaded gravel trucks from the quarries upstream. And it's home to dozens of White-throated Swifts, European Starlings, and apparently 6,000 bats!

But I've been here for 30 years, which means the bridge is more than half a century old, and...it has a problem. A serious problem, a major vulnerability. In fairness in case you are worried, there's no disaster coming later in the post. The bridge didn't collapse or anything. But time (and a couple of major floods) had revealed an important structural deficiency. It is a "scour critical" bridge. You really don't want a bridge that is scour critical. It is the underlying cause in more than half the bridge failures in the United States.

The picture above was apparently taken in 2017 when the river last flooded (I kind of miss the days of too much water compared to what we have now). Notice how the columns are all under water. There are some pretty powerful currents coursing around the bridge supports.

Now, take a look at the bridge in low-water conditions (above and below). The columns supporting the bridge are connected to concrete pads. The foundation extends 16 feet into the ground, which consists mainly of loose river sediment (although there may be some fairly solid sandstone too, but I don't have access to the geological reports from the engineers for this project).

Major floods in 1997 and in 2017 apparently scoured out much of the sediment surrounding the columns, and threatened to destabilize the entire bridge (I recall the bridge being closed for many days during both floods).

The problem became pronounced enough that an attempt was made to reinforce the foundation with concrete Tetris blocks (below). 

As I became aware of the problem, the old bridge began to look more and more delicate and fragile. I had been driving over the bridge for three decades without giving a second thought to the safety of the span, and did not learn the details of the threat until signs suddenly appeared on the river trail announcing the closure of a section of the trail for the next three years (in 2019), and a bunch of beautiful old oak trees were unceremoniously chopped down. They were beginning construction of a new bridge.

The construction crews quickly built a temporary trestle just above river level (betting against another 100-year flood during the construction period). It was strong enough to hold up to three gigantic cranes at once. The new bridge is going to be wider with bike lanes and a pedestrian walkway (the old bridge was rather terrifying to walk or bike across). But most important, the bridge will be supported by pairs of columns that will extend more than 100 feet into the riverbed and into the bedrock below. Scour will no longer be a serious threat.

The new bridge was constructed rather quickly all things considered, and is opening for business just three days from now. The old bridge was shut down permanently about 10 days ago. The photo below is a webcam image from November 17.

Source: https://app.oxblue.com/open/stancounty/hickmanbridge

The bridge is going to always have an odd alignment, as it would have been economically disruptive to remove the old bridge first and then build the new one over a three year period. I am now extremely curious how they will proceed with the demolition of the old bridge. There is nothing in the promotional materials that indicates how they will do it. It seems unlikely that they'll blow it up, considering the proximity of the new bridge to the old one. Their timeline suggests six months or so to accomplish the task. Geotripper will be there to report if anything interesting goes on!

When I photographed the bridges side by side the other day, I was struck by the degree to which the old bridge sags. I had never really thought about it before, wondering if that was originally part of the plan, or did it 'sink' a bit over the years. It bothers me a little not knowing the answer!

There was a huge political scuffle over the infrastructure bill that was recently passed into law over the objections of one major political party (they even want to punish the 13 members of their party who voted for it),. There are tens of thousands of structurally deficient bridges all across our nation that are 'safe until they aren't safe'. This particular bridge didn't collapse as it could have, but there are many, many others that are more dangerous than we collectively think. We drive over them every day, never knowing about the cracks in the concrete, and the rusting superstructure that holds the bridges together. This new investment in our country's infrastructure should have been implemented years ago, but I'm glad we got it through when we did. We deserve better from those who would 'serve' over us.

Monday, November 8, 2021

"What We Find Belongs to the Public Domain of Science": The Boy Paleontologists and the Irvingtonian Land Mammal Stage


Mission Peak from the Sabercat Trail in Fremont, California

I can just hear the script writers arguing about one of the scenes in an Indiana Jones movie...

George Lucas says "How about 'What we find belongs to the public domain of science'?"

Someone, presumably Harrison Ford in disguise says "George, you can type this s**t, but you sure can’t say it.

Someone else pipes up and says "Shorten it to 'That belongs in a museum'" and history was made.

I'm sure it never happened that way, but "What We Find Belongs to the Public Domain of Science" was in fact the motto of the Boy Paleontologists, who prior to last weekend I had never heard of. As adventurers, they were far more real than Indiana Jones, and ended up contributing far more to science than a glorified tomb raider. And to my surprise, I learned a lot more in an unexpected moment of serendipity.

Interpretive sign on the trail describing the paleontology efforts at Sabercat Trail

To begin with, Irvington simply is not a city that I've ever heard of in California. There's Irving, Texas, and Irvine, California, but no Irvington. But there is a part of the geological time scale called the Irvingtonian North America Land Mammal Stage. And that means there's an Irvington somewhere in North America, but a moment of research reveals that there are hundreds of fossil sites of Irvingtonian age scattered across the continent (and in fact the world). I never really thought to look up the actual location (and yes I see that Irvington, NJ is a place). 

The Irvingtonian North American Land Mammal Age (NALMA) on the geologic timescale spans from 1.9 million to 250,000 years ago. The Irvingtonian is usually considered to overlap the Lower Pleistocene and Middle Pleistocene epochs (basically the middle of the ice ages). The Irvingtonian is preceded by the Blancan and followed by the Rancholabrean NALMA  (which I absolutely knew about; I wrote about it tangentially just months ago).

The beginning of the Irvingtonian is defined by the first appearance of Mammuthus south of 55° N in North America, and the beginning of the succeeding Rancholabrean is defined by the first appearance of Bison.

Source: Barnosky et al., Prelude to the Anthropocene: Two new North American Land Mammal Ages (NALMAs). The Anthropocene Review. 1. 1-18. 10.1177/2053019614547433.

So how do these land mammal stages happen? Basically someone finds a huge number of fossils in a particular locality, and the assemblage turns out to be correlated to lots of other fossil sites across the continent to the extent that any fossil site with the same assemblage can be confidently dated. 

My son has been encouraging me for months to come and visit and walk the path in a Fremont park called the Sabercat Trail. He said they dug up a bunch of fossils there and it was preserved as a historical park now. I was intrigued, but COVID cut down on the opportunities to visit so it didn't happen until last weekend.

We got there and I was confused. I was in Fremont, but I was in Irvington. It turns out that Irvington once did exist as a village, but it was incorporated into the larger city of Fremont, but retains its character as the Irvington Neighborhood. And suddenly I realized this Sabercat Historical Park was a lot more important than I took it for. It wasn't just a fossil dig, it was THE Irvingtonian fossil dig. And what a story it had!

The fossils were first reported in 1867 when a local dentist named Lorenzo Gordin Yates found bones on Mission Creek (Sabercat Historical Park is just a few blocks from Mission San Jose). He sent them to Yale University because there was no one yet on the west coast who could identify them. His samples apparently included horses, camels and mammoth bone fragments.

Decades passed, and despite being just a few miles north, paleontologists from U.C. Berkeley didn't visit the site until the 1930s. The head of the Paleontology department at Berkeley, Ruben Stirton collected an assemblage of fossils and published a report in 1939 that first referred to the Irvingtonian fauna. It was defined as a land-mammal age as a result of Don Savage's studies in 1951.

A very large mammoth tusk at the Bell Quarry. Source: Pleistocene Ecosystem (msnucleus.org) by Wesley Gordon

The Boy Paleontologists entered the scene in middle 1940s when Wesley Gordon brought his sons and several of their friends on a fossil-collecting trip to the site. By now the locality was an active gravel quarry (the mind reels at the number of specimens that must have been destroyed over the years). A weekend hobby turned into a major excavation using young volunteers from the local community. The digs continued for around 15 years, and were even the subject of a Life Magazine article. They ultimately recovered 150,000 specimens of 58 species. 

The site unfortunately lay in the path of "progress", or more specifically the 680 freeway. Most of the quarry is covered by pavement now, although the account mentions that Wes Gordon convinced CalTrans to slightly divert the route to preserve a Short-faced Bear locality. My son mentions that the Ohlone people fought a 20-year legal battle to preserve an ancient burial site from the same freeway.

What exactly did they find? Who was living in the San Francisco Bay region between 1.9 million to 250,000 years ago? The trail provides some very nice interpretations of the ecosystem that existed at the time.

The cast of creatures ranges from mammoths larger than today's elephants to frogs and toads. During the ice ages, San Francisco Bay didn't exist as such because sea level was hundreds of feet lower than today. The area was broadly similar to what it would be today, if not cooler and slightly wetter. The grazing animals were dominated by camels, horses, deer, mammoths, mastodons, peccaries, and a unique species of four-horned antelope first discovered at Irvington. There were also gigantic ground sloths many times the size of their cousins today in Brazil. Rodents and rabbits would have been as common as today, and their remains are part of the assemblage that was discovered. Because of the delicate nature of their bones, only a few birds, a Canada Goose and Mallard duck, have been found as fossils. There were undoubtedly hundreds of species as there are today.

The carnivores were diverse and imposing. Sabertooth cats have been found (hence the name of the park), as well as scimitar cats, dire wolves, coyotes, foxes, badgers, and raccoons. The most terrifying must have been the short-faced bear, which makes grizzlies look small. It is considered the largest terrestrial mammal carnivore known. 

The park is a different place today. Bobcats and coyotes have replaced the bears, wolves, and sabertooth cats. It offers a network of trails that wind in and out of Sabercat Creek, and there is a smaller wilderness area in adjacent Mammoth Creek. Most all the trails are paved and accessible except for the actual remains of the quarry overlooking the freeway. Most of the fossiliferous layers were eliminated by the construction of the freeway, but the view from that end of the park is far-ranging (below).

I have a feeling that the park is an underutilized birding site. 84 species have been reported so far, but that is probably far fewer than what is actually there, given the excellent riparian habitat. We saw 18 species during our short visit including a very accommodating Western Bluebird.

I'm glad my son dragged us out to the Sabercat Trail. It was quite a revelation and answered some questions I've always wondered about!

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Fall in California: On the Way to Yosemite Valley

Have you ever felt a sense of joy that could hardly be contained? It doesn't happen much in life, and when it does, don't you wish you could hang onto as long as possible? That's about all I can say after our brief sojourn in one of our most precious national parks these last two days.

Pretty much on a whim Mrs. Geotripper and I decided to take a time out from work and spend a few days out of the Central Valley up in the Sierra Nevada. I hadn't paid too much attention to reports from Yosemite Valley, but I figured being early November that most of the fall colors would have been past their prime, but we figured that one can never really have a bad time in the mountains, no matter the time of year. We headed up Highway 120 towards the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite National Park. The sun put on quite a light show as we passed through the prairies beyond Knights Ferry.

I pretty much forget every year that fall colors are not so much a singular event as much a process that unfolds over many weeks. The Aspens in the high country may have burst into bright gold and shed their leaves, but in the middle-altitude forests the Dogwoods and Black Oaks were just coming into their most colorful time. We were mesmerized and stopped at practically every pullout to stare at the kaleidoscope of colors. 
And as tragic as the California wildfires have been, I learned of at least one benefit that becomes apparent at this time of year. Several stretches of Big Oak Flat Road burned in recent years, removing the thick forest cover of conifers. They've been pretty slow about coming back, but the oaks sprouted from the roots and covered the hillsides with shrubby young trees that had turned bright orange as you can see in the picture below.
A close look at some of the leaves reveals that insects have been busy building fat stores for the coming winter.
We entered the park and continued to stop at every bright display of color. Half the day had passed, and we still hadn't reached Yosemite Valley. We were just SO distracted! I almost missed the first look at the valley because not a single car was parked there. We took a moment to view Half Dome and El Capitan and then continued down the highway into the Merced River canyon.

We continued to be distracted by the colorful displays along the road, but we finally reached the valley floor.
I rarely stop at Fern Spring at the west end of the valley because there's not a whole lot to see because of the thick forest, but the forest turned out to be the attraction this time. I jumped down the slope to the Merced River and something was very different, something that I had never really seen before: the river was flowing! In these dry years by late October the Merced River is flowing at a mere dozen cubic feet per second or so. But not today; the river was splashing along as if it were early spring rather than the end of the most deadly drought year in history. The record-breaking storm of the previous week was still draining out of the high country where two or three feet of snow had fallen. It was an astounding sight, and I realized that our time in valley might be something special.

So we moved on up the road into the valley itself, but that is a story for the next post!

Monday, October 25, 2021

Out on the California Prairies: Taking Stock of California's Most Powerful Storm Ever

There are many ways to describe the power of a storm: monetary damages from flooding, rainfall totals, rise of reservoirs and rivers, and others. So one can argue about which particular storm was the most powerful to ever hit the state. I'm thinking especially of storms like those of 1861-62 that left much of the Central Valley as a vast lake for months, the 1997 floods that overwhelmed some reservoirs in the Sierra, or the 1969 floods that I experienced in Southern California. They were all devastating floods, and yesterday's storm won't be remembered the same way as these disasters, but in two ways this storm apparently was unique. 

The storm was called a "bomb cyclone", a term that meteorologists apparently hate in the same way that geologists hate "supervolcano". In any case, the power of the storm lay in the intense low pressure cyclone spinning in the ocean offshore of California and the Pacific Northwest. The lower the pressure, the higher the pressure gradient force that controls wind speed. The pressure was a record 942 millibars, and this generated hurricane-force winds over the ocean. Inland, vegetation and mountains slowed the gales, but we still had a wild day in the Central Valley, with trees and telephone lines down.
The Tuolumne River at Roberts Ferry Bridge
Storms can be incredibly powerful in terms of winds, but as I've discovered in Death Valley National Park, without a source of moisture, that will be it: powerful winds. But this storm tapped into subtropical moisture from the general vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands. This band of moisture, termed an atmospheric river, carries vastly more water than even the Mississippi. This stream of atmospheric moisture was pushed upward as it encountered the frontal system of the cyclone and it produced a prodigious amount of relatively warm precipitation. A number of all-time records for one day storm totals fell across the state, including downtown Sacramento, which got 5.44", breaking a record that stood since 1880. That represents 69% of all the rain the city received in the entire rain year 2020-21. Blue Canyon in the Sierra Nevada got 10.40", which amounted to almost a third of the entire 2020-21 water year. 

I headed out onto the prairies of the Great Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills this afternoon to see what the atmospheric storm did to the grasslands. My first stop was to check out the Tuolumne River at Roberts Ferry Bridge (above). The river hadn't changed much, as it takes time for the waters to gather the storm runoff and move downstream, but the river is also controlled by the huge dam at Don Pedro Reservoir, and they'll hold onto as much water as they can. It's currently at 48% of capacity, which is bad, but not as bad as most other Northern California reservoirs (Lake Shasta is at 22% or so).

The biggest effect on the Tuolumne will be in downtown Modesto where Dry Creek joins the bigger river. Dry Creek is a normally...well...dry creek that has headwaters in the foothills north of Modesto Reservoir. It is undammed, so it can occasionally produce large floods that can back up into some residential neighborhoods. It had a minimal flow over the last few weeks of a few cubic feet per second. But I could see that a lot of water was gathering out in the prairie. The picture above shows one of the small tributaries to Dry Creek, and channels like this are present all over the region. By tomorrow Dry Creek may be flowing at close to 900 cubic feet per second.

The prairie for the most part was certainly wet, but there were few visual reminders that a vast amount of rain had fallen overnight. The vernal pools held water and creeks were flowing. But little flooding and soil loss had taken place, with one glaring exception. Tens of thousands of acres of prairie have been uprooted to be be replaced by almond groves. These groves have been planted in nice neat rows up and down the hillsides, providing a convenient avenue for floodwaters to cause intense soil erosion. I passed numerous scenes like that above where mud from the orchards had flowed down the road. It's hard to believe in this day and age that the farmers would be making the kind of mistakes that led to the Dust Bowl in the 1920s in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.

Away from the almond groves, the grass roots held the soil in place, and the water was infiltrating underground and flowing gently in the recently dry creek beds to gather and eventually drain into the Tuolumne River. The birds and other life seemed enervated by the moisture and were very active throughout the afternoon. I saw lots of Brewer's Blackbirds, Western Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, Red-tailed and Ferruginous Hawks, American Kestrels, and Ravens. I loved coming across the small herd of horses; I was reminded that horses evolved on these prairies millions of years ago before migrating into Asia. They later became extinct here in North America only to be 'returned' by the Spaniards in the 1500s.

The final thought about today's storm is knowing that after the warm rains that snow would be falling in the high country of the Sierra Nevada. In the webcam from the Yosemite Conservancy we can see that upper Yosemite Valley is now mantled with the cold white stuff. Many wishes that this could be the start of a good water year with a chance to recover somewhat from our devastating drought.

Monday, October 18, 2021

So You Think You Know About California Earthquakes? Try This Quiz!

This is the day after the 32rd anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake that caused so much damage in the San Francisco Bay-Santa Cruz region, and given that many people in northern California weren't even born by then, and others have moved in, it helps to be reminded that earthquakes are a fact of life in our fair state (and our state is quite fair because of the long-term activity of earthquakes: it's how our mountains formed). There are some assumptions people sometimes make about California and earthquakes, and it seemed to be a good time to dust off some of these old ideas (this is an abridged and updated version of an article I wrote in 2012)...

It starts with a modest little quiz....

True or False?
  • California is going to fall into the Pacific Ocean
  • The San Andreas fault causes all California earthquakes
  • California has more earthquakes and bigger earthquakes than anywhere else
  • The ground opens up and swallows people during earthquakes
  • Psychics and animals predict earthquakes
  • We in California are waiting for the "BIG ONE"
Comic art courtesy of Zeo

California is going to fall into the sea: true or false?

This is one of those persistent statements about California earthquakes that everyone "knows", even if they live in New Jersey. Many people would say: false.

Here's the correct answer:

In fact, not only is it going to happen, it already has.

Check out the NASA photo above. When we speak of California, we often forget that most people are only thinking of one part of California: Alta California (upper California). The image above reminds us that Baja ("Lower") California is also part of our geography. And Baja has already "fallen" into the Pacific Ocean, in a reasonable interpretation of the statement. Baja was once connected to the Mexican mainland, and has been a peninsula for only the last four million years or so. It is the beginning of a massive rift that will ultimately tear Alta California apart, and send it traveling northwest at all of two inches a year. The two inches per year will actually be taken up by large earthquakes shifting the landscape 10-15 feet every century or so.

In 20 million years, the Dodgers and Giants will again be crosstown rivals (yes, I stole this joke from the DVD "Planet Earth"). In 70 million years, California may slam into the south margin of Alaska, pushing up another high mountain range.

Want to see how this happened? Tanya Atwater of UCSB, the plate tectonics pioneer who figured out the origin of the San Andreas fault, has a series of excellent animations available for download at this site. If you have a fast connection, try this one (50 mb).
Courtesy of Tanya Atwater. See the animation here.
If you have a slower connection, this animation is 20 mb. Both animations show the complex interactions of the continental margin, with some parts being rotated, and others moving northwest along the San Andreas. And Baja California opening up to form a new seaway, the Gulf of California.

So indeed, it could be a good idea to buy up some property in the western Mojave Desert to be ready for your oceanfront views...in ten million years...if you want to wait that long.

What? You thought the question was about California falling into the sea during one earthquake? Really? Like the movie "2012" or "San Andreas"? Not gonna happen. That's tabloid stuff. Aliens kidnapped me last week too.
Art by Zeo
By the way, please don't think that the comic art above is belittling the loss of life and property in horrible events like that which struck Japan in 2011. It is actually a critique of the way that news is reported in American media, especially cable news (I'm talking about you, CNN and FOX), and local news outlets.

Question #2 on our short quiz is:

All California earthquakes happen on the San Andreas fault - True or False?

A crowd at a recent lecture I gave, California residents all, were up to date on this one. Not a single audience member said "true", and they were right. On the other hand, lots of people don't live in California, and they might not be quite as knowledgeable about all of California's faults (double entendre intended). So a few illustrations may be helpful. First of all, where do the earthquakes in California happen? See the map below...
Map courtesy of NDEDC, UC Berkeley.  Follow the link for an interactive version.
A quick look at the seismicity between 1970 and 2003 shows that earthquakes occur over much of California, and that the San Andreas fault is not even one of the most active. Long sections show little or no activity, meaning that stress is building up, leading to powerful quakes in the future.

But what about the biggest quakes? A map that concentrates only on larger quakes, magnitude 5 and above, shows that large damaging quakes also happen on faults other than the San Andreas (see the map below). Of California's three biggest historical quakes, only two were on the San Andreas. The 1872 Lone Pine quake resulted from movement on the Owens Valley fault east of the Sierra Nevada.
Map courtesy of NCNDE, UC Berkeley. Follow the link for an interactive map.

The good news for those of us who live in the flat, dusty, boring Central Valley is to note how few earthquakes, big or little, ever happen near us. Until a quake in the eastern Sierra Nevada a few months ago, I hadn't actually felt an earthquake here since the early 1990s, although most of my students felt one during a class break in 2007 (on a day they were taking a test on earthquakes of all things). 

Question three: California has the biggest and the mostest earthquakes in the world. True or False?

I know that "mostest" is not really a word, but it somehow seems to fit well in the question of the day (a little like Stephen Colbert's 'truthiness'). So, what is the answer? My California audience is usually a little divided on this one, but mostly fall into the "false" camp.

So let's check on some data. If you look at the maps above, you can see that California certainly has a great many earthquakes, perhaps 10,000-15,000 year, and some of them are rather considerable.

There have been three earthquakes in the last 170 years that are thought to have approached magnitude 8 in size: 1857 at Fort Tejon, 1872 at Lone Pine, and 1906 in San Francisco.
San Francisco earthquake of 1906
There have been about two dozen magnitude 7 quakes in the same time period, including the Ridgecrest quake in 2019 (7.1), the 2010 El Mayor-Cucapah quake in Baja (7.2), the 1999 Hector quake (7.1), and the 1992 Landers quake (7.3).
Fault scarp from 1992 Landers earthquake. Photo by Garry Hayes

There have been at least 50 quakes greater than magnitude 6.5, meaning that a potentially damaging quake occurs somewhere in California roughly every two or three years. The 1989 Loma Prieta quake and 1994 Northridge quakes caused damage measured in the tens of billions of dollars, and killed dozens of people.

Those are a lot of earthquakes. So let's take the "biggest" issue first. The quake in Japan that destroyed the nuclear power plant and produced the Pacific-wide tsunami was magnitude 9.0. The quake in Sumatra in 2004 that produced the horrific tsunami in the Indian Ocean was magnitude 9.1. So, California doesn't have the biggest earthquakes. Not even close (but check for the wild card issue below, however).

There is a great deal of confusion about the nature of the magnitude scale for measuring earthquakes. It is not a 1-10 scale, for instance, even though literally all recorded earthquakes fall within that range. It is open-ended, and quakes of greater than magnitude 10 are technically possible, but not likely from terrestrial origin. It would take the impact of an asteroid miles across to cause a quake larger than about 9.5 on the magnitude scale.

The biggest confusion concerns the relative size of quakes. Magnitude is a measure of the energy released when an earthquake strikes. A magnitude 9 quake is not just a little bit bigger than a magnitude 8. It is exponentially larger, by a factor of 32.  To put it a different way, a magnitude 9 quake releases an amount of energy that is equivalent to 32 magnitude 8 earthquakes!

It gets worse: Since a 9 is 32 times more than an 8, and an 8 is 32 times bigger than a 7, a magnitude 9 quake is more than 1000 times larger than a 7 (32x32).

A magnitude 9 quake is the energy equivalent of more than 1,000 magnitude 7 earthquakes...

Put another way: the Japan 9.0 quake released more energy than all of California's historical earthquakes combined.

The story is pretty much the same with the total number of earthquakes. California has a great many smaller quakes, but just about any subduction zone around the world has more. Even in the United States, Alaska has more earthquakes than California (as well as the second-largest earthquake ever recorded in the world, the 9.3 magnitude Good Friday quake of 1964).

So why does California get this reputation of having an inordinate number of earthquakes? I feel compelled to blame the way news is reported in this country. Cable and local news coverage of earthquakes is atrocious for the most part, with badly misinformed reporters and news-readers (I don't consider them to be news anchors or journalists anymore). There is a tendency to display blood and gore over actual conditions on the ground. The media will spend weeks talking about an earthquake in Los Angeles or San Francisco that kills a few people and practically ignore monumental tragedies in Pakistan or Iran where tens of thousands of people have died.

As mentioned above, there is one wild card in the possibility of large earthquakes hitting California. The state does in fact have a subduction zone that is active north of Fortuna and Eureka. It is part of the Cascadia subduction zone that threatens Oregon and Washington. There is good evidence that a magnitude 9 earthquake took place along the system in 1700, and there is no reason to think that the fault system is any less dangerous now.
An offset curb on the Calaveras fault in Hollister, CA. It isn't the San Andreas...
Question #4: In an earthquake, the ground opens up and swallows people: true or false?

True, but only in Hollywood....
Indeed, it is a staple that if an earthquake happens in a movie, somebody is going to be hanging by their fingernails on the edge of a vast deep chasm that has opened up beneath their feet. In the third Indiana Jones movie, for instance, and in 2012, again in San Andreas, and again, and again. And again.
For the reality-based world, the possibility of being swallowed up in the earth during an earthquake is far more unlikely. The problem is that earthquakes are generated by the stress built up along fault lines where vast blocks of rocky crust are in contact. The shaking begins when the rocks rupture and begin slipping. They don't separate. In some faults (thrusts) the stress is compressional and in others (strike-slip) the stress is lateral. Not much chance of openings occurring in either situation. The third type of fault, termed normal faulting, the stress is extensional, which could conceivably result in the stretching of the crust and formation of fissures, but more often, one side slips downward, as can be seen in the picture below, from the 1954 Fairview Peak earthquake in Nevada.
It is true that small fissures will open along fault ruptures in some situations. I saw many of these when I visited the Landers area a week after the 7.3 magnitude earthquake in 1992. The fissures were only a few inches across and no more than a foot or so in depth. I've heard mention of where someone was killed in a fissure that opened up in a 1948 quake in Japan, but that hardly represents a pattern.

One other effect of large earthquakes is the production of slope failures and landslides, during which large fissures might open up. The Turnagain Heights liquefaction event during the Alaska earthquake of 1964 is a stunning example. Weak saturated sediments underneath the housing project were severely shaken, causing the whole landscape to break up and flow towards the adjacent bay, destroying the dwellings at the surface (I've included two pictures derived from my old slide collection, but I'm afraid I don't know who to attribute them to; I will add credit if someone can clue me in. They may be from a USGS collection).

In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, there were not any claims of swallowed people that I know of, but there is the famous tail/tale of Shafter's cow, which was swallowed up by the San Andreas fault. In the aftermath, only the poor bovine's tail could be seen at the surface. The story apparently became widespread, but in a letter from 1966, some locals recalled that the poor cow had actually died the night before. The earthquake produced a convenient fissure, the farmer tossed in the carcass, and when reporters showed up asking questions about the poor animal, farmer Shafter decided not to kill a "good story".

Question 5: Psychics predict earthquakes: true or false?

Comic art by Zeo (with slight modifications by Geotripper)

Well, let's see if I can't make a few (seismic) waves here.

My audiences and readers are skeptics and non-believers, to be frank, and usually come down firmly in favor of "false" for an answer. So they are a little surprised when I tell them the actual answer:


Think about it a moment, and you will realize that the statement is in fact true. Psychics predict earthquakes all the time. All the time, and then some more. Earthquakes are one of their most common predictions, more popular I think than predictions about aliens.

That leads to a revised question: Do psychic predictions about earthquakes come true?

My readers are usually onto me by now, and they will say that psychic predictions are invariably wrong. I set them straight. I say "Psychics predict earthquakes all the time, and are almost invariably correct".

I support my contention with a collection of predictions that I googled in about five minutes. I refuse to link to each of them because I have no interest in promoting their websites. If you want to find them, google the statement and it shouldn't take long to dig them up.

  • Both earthquake and out of control fires will effect California causing devastation and loss [of] life. 
  • There will be a violent earthquake, one of the strongest on record.[no location noted]
  • My California earthquake prediction: yes, there WILL be an earthquake in California. I am not saying it will be along the San Andreas Fault or that it will be major. …I am also not saying when.
  • I keep seeing the year 2011 like a pulsating animation within visions of major earth shifts in my home state of California. Dates perceived in months or years could be argued to have limited value in forecasting a time because we psychics move our consciousness in large spans of time and cover broad areas of locations and events.
Note how every one of these predictions came true. Oh, and my favorite, the shotgun prediction....

Wild Weather Predictions

  1. Category five hurricane wipes out Miami.
  2. The worst mudslides in California’s history will occur.
  3. Mount St. Helens erupting.
  4. Earthquake Seattle, Washington.
  5. Earthquake Chicago, Illinois.
  6. Part of the polar ice cap melts.
  7. Wildfires spread to Beverley Hills and Los Angeles, Brentwood.
  8. More tsunamis Sumatra Indonesia, Alaska, Hawaii and Japan.
  9. A great earthquake in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego.
  10. Earthquake Lake Tahoe.
  11. Earthquake Toronto and Quebec.
  12. Earthquake Oregon.
  13. Earthquake Grand Canyon.
  14. Earthquake New York, Alaska, Japan, Greece.
  15. Earthquake British Columbia, China and Iran.
  16. Tornado in California.
  17. Floods Amsterdam, Holland, Rhine River, Germany, Bangladesh, Great Britain. Venice, Italy, Gulf Coast of Florida and France.
  18. Tsunami Malibu, California.
  19. Wildfires Greece, Australia, Texas, Hawaii.
  20. Mudslides in India, California.
  21. Typhoon in Taiwan.
  22. Tornadoes Oklahoma, Indiana, Texas, Illinois, Tennessee.
  23. Great earthquake Rome and Naples, Italy.
  24. Huge snowstorm and blizzards up the eastern seaboard affecting the great lakes – Toronto, Chicago, New York, Boston, etc.
  25. Earthquake Yosemite and Yellowstone Park.
Note how many of these predictions haven't happened yet. Still, many will absolutely take place, allowing the psychic responsible for this list to claim broad success in his or her psychic powers.

Soooo...psychics accurately predict earthquakes. Well, guess what? I can predict earthquakes too! And I can be more specific than the average psychic. Here goes..

I predict that within the next week:
  • 200 earthquakes will occur in California,
  • Of these, there will be a magnitude 4 quake in southern California, most likely in the Colorado Desert near Salton Sea.
  • There will be a magnitude 3 earthquake in northern California, most likely north of the Bay Area, somewhere around Clear Lake.
  • There will be a larger quake at the Vanuatu Islands in the Pacific Ocean, quite possibly in the magnitude 6 range.
  • There will be a magnitude 5 earthquake offshore of Japan.
I think I am going to be right. You are welcome to keep count and when the quakes happen you can hail me as a psychic earthquake predictor.

You can do that, but please note that my predictions have something in common with psychic predictions: the predictions are totally and absolutely useless to anybody.  They are about as useful as predicting that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Why? Because like the sun rising, earthquakes happen all the time, and they tend to happen in the same general places, mainly along tectonic plate boundaries (along with a few near hot spots like Hawaii or Yellowstone). It sounds impressive that 200 earthquakes will happen over the next week in California, but that happens nearly every week.

Earthquake prediction is a serious business. On the one hand, a timely prediction can save lives. But a prediction made by a credible source that doesn't come to pass is a real problem. Like the boy who called "wolf" once too often, later predictions would be ignored. Charlatans who make spurious predictions can cause panic and unnecessary stress in an uninformed population (such a prediction in 1990 caused the population of St. Louis and surrounding region to close down businesses and leave town, and also caused a media circus).

An earthquake prediction, in order to save lives, must have three elements:
  • the time (within a few days at most)
  • the location (specific)
  • the magnitude and depth
No psychic ever provides such information, which proves the useless nature of their "predictions". No one is in a position to predict earthquakes with such precision, including seismologists. Anyone who claims some special power of prediction is lying or deluded. No one has ever once saved lives with such predictions (the one successful prediction, ever, of a quake that saved lives, in China in 1975, was based on tangible evidence, and no psychic powers were claimed or invoked).

Psychics: give up the earthquakes. Stick to the lives of the Hollywood stars. They're more predictable anyway.

Question 5 B: Animals predict earthquakes...true or false?

My answer to this one?

??? Who knows???

The problem is perceived cause and effect. Many people who experience strong earthquakes recall strange behavior by their animals, and link that behavior to the quake. The problem is that animals may behave strangely in many circumstances that are not followed by a strong earthquake, but the behavior is not noticed or remarked.
This animal is clearly predicting an earthquake. Or is about to attack.

The other problem is how to quantify strange acts by animals. What specific animal behaviour constitutes a prediction of an earthquake? At what point do authorities declare that animals have predicted a quake?

There are many anecdotal stories about unusual activity by animals going back hundreds of years, so I for one cannot completely dismiss the idea out of hand. Animals sense the world differently than humans, and there could in fact be some sort of electromagnetic or vibrational effect that researchers have not yet detected.

A reasonable response on earthquakes and animal behavior would be a good article by the National Geographic that can be found here. Geologists around the world  followed a story coming out of Italy regarding the failure of seismologists for failing to predict or warn the local populace before a deadly earthquake in Italy that killed several hundred people in 2009. It's one thing to say geologists can't predict earthquakes, and quite another to say they didn't predict it enough in the aftermath. Seismologists walk a fine line.

Speaking of kitties and strange behavior, if you see these eyes, run for your life. Aliens have taken over your cat's soul....
Comic art by Zeo

Question 6: In California, we are waiting for the BIG ONE! True or False??

When I talk to groups about this question, I make sure to say "the BIG ONE" in capital letters. How do you say something in capital letters? You do it in a deep baritone voice with your hand cupping the microphone; it's very dramatic.

So what is the answer? Well, actually the question is wrong and requires a bit of modification. Let's try it again, and in that deep baritone voice:

In California, we are waiting for the BIG ONES!

There, that's better. If we can't predict earthquakes, then how can this statement be possible? Doesn't it require the ability to predict earthquakes? Yes, it does. So the statement must be false. But it is not. The answer is TRUE!

Predicting earthquakes is not possible in the short term, as in hours or days, but a great deal can be said about the probability of earthquakes in a particular area over a period of decades. We can do this on the basis of the historical and prehistorical record of earthquakes along a particular fault zone, and by analysis of building stresses and tilting over a large region, as revealed by GPS stations and other related technology Check out the latest version of the Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities in this USGS PDF file.
As can be found on the map above, numerous fault zones represent a threat to the state of California. The fault zones are of different lengths, and therefore some will produce smaller quakes, but several are capable of producing large shocks approaching magnitude 7, and maybe even larger. These include the San Jacinto fault, the Owens Valley fault, the Hayward and Calaveras faults, and others. Even more important is the fact that the San Andreas itself is not a single monolithic fault zone. It has segments that behave independently. This was shown in 1857 and 1906, when completely different sections of the fault gave way, producing shocks that approached magnitude 8.

The most recently published studies show that earthquakes of 6.7 magnitude or greater are a virtual certainty over the next 30 years. The chance for an even greater quake is ominous, exceeding 70% for a magnitude 7.0, and a lesser, but still significant chance of even larger events. One of these quakes has already occurred, the Ridgecrest Earthquake of 2019 (7.1).

Another wild card is the possibility of a large quake along the Cascadia subduction zone in the northernmost part of the state. It was not included in the probabilities, but numerous magnitude 7 quakes have taken place in that region in recent decades.

The lesson to be drawn from these predictions is that damaging earthquakes have happened all over California, and they will continue to do so in the future. Some of these quakes will be major events, causing many deaths and massive damage over large areas. The probability forecasts have great value in the sense that they are a warning to residents across the the state to be prepared at all times for earthquakes. We cannot know the precise moment that a large earthquake will strike, but we do know where they will happen, and how big they can be.