Will California fall into the ocean?

Full Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff from the Science Lab from howstuffworks.com.

Allison Loudermilk: Hey, guys, and welcome to the podcast. This is Allison Loudermilk, the science editor at howstuffworks.com.

Robert Lamb: And this is Robert Lamb, science writer at howstuffworks.com. We're kicking off with a letter, right off the bat.

Allison Loudermilk: We sure are. And this letter comes to you compliments of one Florida Matt. And Florida Matt recently wrote us saying, "Good morning, Allison and Robert. My girlfriend is currently going to college where one of her professors told her there is a theory that one day the San Andreas Fault will split, plummeting the west coast into the ocean, never to be heard from again. I'm skeptical about it, but I wanted to see what you had to say. Thanks for your consideration. Love the podcast. Matt."

Robert Lamb: Okay. Well, this is actually a very popular idea in terms of pop culture references to it.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, it's out there.

Robert Lamb: Were you aware of it? Had you encountered this anywhere in pop culture beforehand?

Allison Loudermilk: A little bit, yeah. How about you?

Robert Lamb: Mainly, I was familiar with it because there's at least one Tool song that makes reference to it a lot off of the Aenima album.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay. I'm not familiar with that one.

Robert Lamb: That was from back in high school when that one came out. Really good album, but -

Allison Loudermilk: Well, we put the call to Facebook for people to comment on this one, too.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I was familiar with that one and I was like, "What else is there." I know it's a common thing. So this guy, Michael - who I went to high school with, by the way - said -

Allison Loudermilk: Hey, Michael from high school.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. He said the Jimmy Eats World song Blister features it. A guy named John told us, "Escape from LA. Do you even have to ask? Also, sometimes my dreams."

Allison Loudermilk: Oh, all right. Cryptic.

Robert Lamb: I guess he doesn't like Cali. Heather mentions something called The End of the World. It's like a flash cartoon on the Internet. David mentions the stand-up comedy of Bill Hicks, which I think was also reference to that Tool album. Valerie says, "I think there is a Rancid song that even adds an expletive between fall into the and ocean."

Allison Loudermilk: All right.

Robert Lamb: I don't know what that expletive could be. And then one of my favorites, Warren Zevon had a song called Desperados under the Eaves. And there's a part in it - I think it's in the chorus where he's like, "And if California falls into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will."

Allison Loudermilk: That's very nice, Robert.

Robert Lamb: Thanks. So that's the thing -

Allison Loudermilk: Can you do the other part - the other big Warren Zevon song?

Robert Lamb: I assume you're talking

about -

Allison Loudermilk: Werewolves of London?

Robert Lamb: Well, the weird thing is, it's like -

Allison Loudermilk: Do you not think that's representative -

Robert Lamb: Well, yes and no. I love that song, but you go out to karaoke - I don't go a lot - but when I do, I always check out Warren Zevon. He's one of the few artists that I'm like, "These are fun songs to sing." But they almost always will just have Werewolves of London. And he's kind of talking in that song, and it's not sung per se, as fun as it is. And he has so many other songs that are just a lot more fun to sing - like Excitable Boy or Desperados under the Eaves. And he did so much other work that's great.

Allison Loudermilk: So Cali and Warren Zevon. That's what we bring to you today. So let's do a quick refresher on earthquakes.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, because that's what we're talking about. That's what would cause California to, in theory, fall into the ocean.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. Not all of that California sin that's going on in Californication, but no - California Earthquakes. That's what we're interested in. I was thinking about the Chili Peppers. I was trying to think if they had referenced California falling into the ocean in that song. I don't think.

Robert Lamb: I guess. I'm not that familiar with that work, but -

Allison Loudermilk: Oh, I was a huge fan. Mother's Milk? No? Never?

Robert Lamb: I knew some of the tracks off of it, but nobody mentioned it on Facebook.

Allison Loudermilk: All right. Facebook has to be right. So what's an earthquake again? You guys know this. You're probably saying it with us. It's just when the ground starts shaking beneath your feet. And what is that caused by? Shaking's caused by a sudden motion in the plates that are all around us in the earth's crust.

Robert Lamb: Energy waves moving through the crust, right?

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. It's a pretty simple explanations. A rock jockey might tell you something a little different, get a little bit more into detail. And where do they happen? So, earthquakes can happen anywhere.

Robert Lamb: Well, on earth.

Allison Loudermilk: True. It's not just Cali. It's not just the famous Ring of Fire. They do tend to concentrate in three zones according to the United States Geological Survey. So first one - you guys are going to know this one - Pacific Rim, a.k.a. the Ring of Fire. And that's responsible for more than 80 percent of earthquakes.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Johnny Cash wrote a song about it, right?

Allison Loudermilk: He did. Are you going to sing that, too?

Robert Lamb: No.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay. There's another belt called the Alpine, and that's found in Indonesia. It trails into the Atlantic. And then there's a last belt that tracks the Midatlantic Ridge. And it's underwater. So it's not the big one. It's not the Ring of Fire. We don't hear a whole lot about that one.

Robert Lamb: And it's important to note, too, that earthquakes on TV or the ones that your friend is likely to tell you about at dinner is something that you feel. But you don't always feel them. Sometimes they're so subtle that you'd have to have some actual seismological equipment to determine them.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. Here in Georgia, we have them. There was one on August 5, 2010 - magnitude 2.2. So probably not too detectable. The epicenter of that one was close to Milledgeville. Somehow, I don't picture Milledgeville in Georgia being - you know.

Robert Lamb: Like Milledgeville is the earthquake capital.

Allison Loudermilk: Isn't that just where that football scandal just went down? I think it was.

Robert Lamb: No idea.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay, so here's another earthquake term we should mention - fault. When you're talking about earthquakes, a lot of times you're talking about faults. And so here's the quick and dirty definition for you. It's a fracture of the earth, really. On either side of the earth, you'll have these blocks for crust and they're moving relative to one another, parallel to the fractures.

Robert Lamb: I always think of it when I look at a model of a human skull. The skull is not one bone, it's several. And you can see the different lines where they come together. And that's like the crust of the earth.

Allison Loudermilk: Well, today we're going to talk mainly about the San Andreas Fault - that's the big one. And it's the boundary between the North American and Pacific plates. And it's visible to the eye, and that's pretty cool because most of the big faults aren't.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, this one, you can look at spectacular aerial shots of it and it looks like two massive of the earth's surface are rubbing against each other causing - it looks like geologic scar tissue. And that's kind of what it is.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, it's like a trough in the earth.

Robert Lamb: If you've ever seen Abdul of the Butcher's forehead - I'm just throwing that out to the wrestling fans - that's what it looks like. It looks like big gritty scar tissue.

Allison Loudermilk: Something else that's cool about the San Andreas Fault is you can literally straddle two plates. And these tectonic plates we're talking about are enormous. They have a whole lot of land behind them. So near the San Andreas fault, you sit one foot on the North American plate and the other foot on the Pacific plate - like Hawaii, Japan, all of that. So that's cool. It reminds of that spot in the United States where the four corners -

Robert Lamb: Yeah, where you get all the touristy photos of, "Oh, my foot's in this state and" -

Allison Loudermilk: Right. Right. So the San Andreas specifically is a strike slip fault.

Robert Lamb: Okay. And this is where the two plates are trying to push past each other. And if they pass one another easily, it's no big deal. But it's when they can't, when the plates are locked, that tension builds up and you get a big earthquake. Don't do this because you don't want to damage your enamel, but like when are teeth are grinding. And if you were to put so much pressure that you couldn't quite grind them -

Allison Loudermilk: Earthquake in your mouth.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, exactly. That's what comes to mind when we were looking over all this stuff.

Allison Loudermilk: And it's not just a strike slip fault, it's a right lateral strike slip. So let's set this up for you. Let's say you're standing on the North American plate with your back to New York and you're facing the Pacific plate and ocean. So the Pacific plate would look like it's moving to the right. So how much is it moving? That's the big question, right?

Robert Lamb: Well, you're not going to notice it. If your house was on the fault line, you're not going to look out and be like, "Whoa, there was a forest there yesterday and now it's a desert."

Allison Loudermilk: Right. So you're not going to notice it because it's 46 millimeters a year. That's hardly not

iceable to us. But you get a great earthquake going on, like the earthquake of 1906, and you're going to have some pretty major offsets. So according to the USGS, there was a road that wound up being offset by 21 feet.

Robert Lamb: Okay, we'll that's noticeable.

Allison Loudermilk: It's definitely noticeable.

Robert Lamb: The San Andreas Fault's been around for 15-25 million years. And it's experienced a creep of about 350 miles. That's about normal.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. It sounds like a lot, but it is pretty normal.

Robert Lamb: And again, we're talking about the Pacific plate, the one that's -

Allison Loudermilk: Moving north with respect to the North American plate.

Robert Lamb: And it's got some of Southern California on it - although not all of Southern California - just a tasty strip of it.

Allison Loudermilk: So the San Andreas Fault - we haven't really told you some of its geographic specifics.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's 800 miles long.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. It runs past San Francisco in the north, all the way up to Mendocino. And to the south, it runs past Las Angeles to the Salton Sea. So it roughly echoes the California coastline for much of it. But as you amble south along the fault zone, it moves more inland, dividing somewhat Northern California from Southern California Beneath the coast, the fault can reach up to ten miles into the ground. That's deep.

Robert Lamb: It is. And it's another thing to keep in mind here when you talk about whether California will fall into the ocean, is that the fault line we're talking about is not - they didn't put the state boundary on the fault line. It's not even close. It's a good ways off.

Allison Loudermilk: Some parts of it really do separate California from the ocean. It doesn't literally, but if you look at it on an aerial view or just the plain old -

Robert Lamb: Yeah, yeah - the geographic boundary, for sure, in the northern part of it between California and the sea. But between California and Arizona - no. There's not fault line out there. There's no fault line dividing the two states. So with that rather powerful fault line in California, obviously there have been some pretty powerful earthquakes over time.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. We're talking about thousands of earthquakes occurring in California every year. And the San Andreas Fault zone is responsible for most. So the first recorded California earthquake occurred in 1769. There was an expedition - the Jasper J. Portola expedition - that was camped about 30 miles outside of Las Angeles. And they reported four sever shocks.

Robert Lamb: And then the most famous and destructive was the 1906 earthquake. And that's technically April 18, 1906.

Allison Loudermilk: So this was cool - the USGS, as you guys probably know, is an amazing treasure trove of awesome info. And they had a link to some eyewitness accounts from that earthquake. So I wanted to read you part of one. This is from John J. Conlon, who was seven on the day of the great earthquake.

Robert Lamb: Okay. Are you going to do this in an old dude voice?

Allison Loudermilk: Well, no. He was seven.

Robert Lamb: Do it in a little kid voice, then.

Allison Loudermilk: Well, I'll give it my best attempt.

There was never any question in my mind as to the severity of the earthquake at 5:13 o

n that Wednesday morning. I was awakened from a sound sleep by the shaking of my bed and the house. Father herded Flossie [Flossie is this woman who apparently assisted John J. Conlon's mom, in case you guys are wondering] my brother and me into a doorway for protection in the event the house collapsed; actually it was only slightly damaged. Within moments, during this period of the city's greatest emergency, the unusual silence of the alarm bell told its own story. The system was destroyed as was the functioning of the city's 30,000 telephones.

For once, and tragically so, the cries of trapped victims for help, generally referred to the Fire Department for attention, could not instantly activate rescue crews.

Conlon gives a lot more detail, but he winds up ending with:

May the children of San Francisco, or any place, never again enjoy such an experience as mine.

But the truth is, earthquakes happen all the time, and big ones happen all the time - and hundreds of thousands of people wind up losing their lives.

Robert Lamb: And by the way, he mentions standing under the doorway. And the U.S. Geological survey points out that that's an outdated notion. That was based on the idea that, in the old days it would shake houses down. And at time, that would be the reinforced part of the house and that would be what was still standing after the house came down. But they say don't do that.

Allison Loudermilk: All right. Good information, Robert. So I feel like we've given you guys a lot of preamble to the question at hand, the question posed in the podcast title Is Cali Going to Fall into the Ocean.

Robert Lamb: And it will - no, it's not. I'm sorry. I read it wrong off the sheet. No, it's not going to fall into the ocean.

Allison Loudermilk: Why not?

Robert Lamb: Well, for several reasons. First of all, even if the fault line could magically have this super magnitude quake that could make part of the fall into the ocean, it wouldn't be the whole state. And secondly -

Allison Loudermilk: The ocean isn't deep enough. It's not just this yawning hole into which we can throw entire -

Robert Lamb: Yeah, that's the thing.

Allison Loudermilk: - states.

Robert Lamb: You see in the movies where the earthquake makes a big hole open up and stuff falls into it and Superman has to save somebody or -

Allison Loudermilk: Erroneous - but cool.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, that doesn't happen. Fault lines are bout things pushing together and grinding against each other, like your teeth. But they're not opening up and swallowing things.

Allison Loudermilk: They're not rending the earth asunder?

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: I just love saying that - rending the earth asunder. It feels very Biblical.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, when I was a kid, I used to have a Bible book and it had a picture of someone being swallowed up by the earth.

Allison Loudermilk: So California's not going to be swept out to sea. But it is moving. It definitely is moving, compliments of the two plates bumping up against each other in the fault zone. And Southwestern California is moving very slowly - two inches per year is one that the USGS provided - towards Alaska. And it's sliding past central and eastern California. So roughly 15 million years from now or so, Las Angeles and San Franciscans will be neighbors.

Robert Lamb: That's pretty amazing. So the super evolved squid that take over and live in Las Angeles, they'll be right next door to the super evolved cockroaches that live in San Francisco. I hope they get along.

Allison Loudermilk: Berkeley's seismological lab is also in agreement on this one, both of which are good sources for you guys to check out if you're interested in exploring this more. And besides, earthquakes are interesting. And the USGS site is pretty ama

zing when it comes to this stuff. And we have a good article on how earthquakes work. Did you work on that one?

Robert Lamb: No, I did not.

Allison Loudermilk: Maybe it was The Brain. I think The Brain worked on that one.

Robert Lamb: I think he may have at least co-authored that one.

Allison Loudermilk: So that's the answer to the question. It is moving, but it's not going to be swept into the ocean because the ocean is a landmass itself, albeit one with water on top of it. But it's not going to swallow up California.

Robert Lamb: I think people love it, though, because people either have a lot of hatred toward California -

Allison Loudermilk: Or love of.

Robert Lamb: Or love of. So there's this feeling of, "Yeah, it should break off and be its own thing - or drown in the ocean.

Allison Loudermilk: And then there's the whole movement in California between northern California and southern California and being of very different mindsets according to some residents.

Robert Lamb: It feels very different. I actually just got back from California. My wife and I went on a vacation, and we got to see San Francisco and LA. It took us a lot longer to travel between the two cities now than it will millions of years in the future. But it feels almost like a different state. It's a huge state.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. No doubt. My brother lives in San Fran. So thanks to Florida Matt for bringing that one to our attention and giving us inspiration for this podcast. Do you want to do some listener mail, Robert?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I've got some more. And it's a good podcast to do this on since the whole episode came from listener mail. We received an email we were both excited about from Jenna - also known as Hookworm Girl by us and listeners - she says -

Allison Loudermilk: Who has lovely feet. She sent us a new picture of her feet.

Robert Lamb: Yes, new picture of her feet and it's a complete turnaround from the parasite infected things we saw before.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, hookworms. You could see the hookworm tracks in the skin of her feet. It was pretty awesome.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, they look pedicured and the toenails are painted.

Allison Loudermilk: A nice twinkly red, I thought.

Robert Lamb: Yes. And very healthy looking feet. So anyway, she wrote us and sent us this picture. She says, "This is Jenna from Vancouver - i.e. Hookworm Girl. Not to be confused with the superhero, although that might be interesting. I just wanted to let you know that I am so tickled pink every time I heard my foot mentioned on your podcast."

Allison Loudermilk: Here it is getting another mention.

Robert Lamb: "I never would've dreamed that that picture would've made such an impression." How could it now? It was a pretty gross picture.

Allison Loudermilk: Pretty cool picture. Jenna.

Robert Lamb: "To put your mind at ease, I thought I would send you a more recent foot picture and thank you again for the great podcast. I work in a lab looking for new therapeutic strategies for fighting tuberculosis. And sometimes the lack of progress being made in an

tibiotic research can be a little terrifying. On this note, I would like to suggest a podcast on bacteriophage based therapies."

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. I did a little research into it after she sent in her email and I think we might have to cover that. Although, we have devoted a little bit of time to bacteria recently with the whole quorum sensing and the whole altruistic bacteria.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, we've been hitting the bacteria pretty hard. So thanks for letting us know your foot is better. It's becoming the third member of the podcast.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, Jenna's foot.

Robert Lamb: Josh writes, "What's up Stuff From the Science Lab? I was just listening to the WOW signal podcast in my car." Apparently, stopped - not emailing while driving. "And it reminded me of a SEDE phenomenon that a friend of mine caught, potentially. It was around 1999 and a bunch of my nerdy friends and I were enjoying running SEDE at home on our computers. Generally the data packets that you would sift through just showed random noise. But for a brief period during one day, a friend of mine was receiving perfect sine waves. They were so perfect against the unusual RAMs, that he shot a few emails with screen shots to let SEDE people know to check it out.

A week or so later, he got a cryptic email back claiming some unusual interference from something suspicious, and was told just to disregard it. Perhaps just because -

Allison Loudermilk: So awesome. This is so awesome. This is my new favorite listener email.

Robert Lamb: - conspiracies are fun, we've always held onto the belief that we just happened to see something that they didn't want us to see. Of course, nothing has come of it in the intervening 11 years, so who knows? I love your podcast more than I can express in my hastily written email on my phone. It keeps me company for the 6-8 hours a spend in the care every day."

Allison Loudermilk: Oh, man. That's a long time.

Robert Lamb: "Please continue doing it forever."

Allison Loudermilk: We will do it at least as long as it takes for Los Angeles to creep right up to San Francisco. So 15 million years or so.

Robert Lamb: Like from beyond the grave? You're really locking us in there.

Allison Loudermilk: Well, with all that science going on, we could live forever.

Robert Lamb: That's right. In fact -

Allison Loudermilk: And record podcasts forever.

[Announcer message at end breaks in and plays simultaneously]

Robert Lamb: Yeah, we could.

Allison Loudermilk: We hope that's a happy time for you guys. But anyway, we want to hear from you, so tell us about your experience with earthquakes or -

Robert Lamb: Alien signals.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. And random science stuff at howstuffworks.com. And of course, on social networking you can find us on Facebook. We're Stuff From the Science Lab. And over on Twitter RL is a tweet master, so we're @LabStuff. So that's all we got today. Thanks for listening.

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