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A Scientist Calls Bullshit on Newsweek's "Fearmongering" Earthquake Story

A geophysicist attacks the theory that Japan's latest quake spells doom for California.

Writing for Newsweek in the days after Japan's recent devastating earthquake, journalist and geologist Simon Winchester proclaimed, "The tsunami that struck Japan was the third in a series of events that now put California at risk." According to Winchester, Japan's quake and the two other major earthquakes that preceded it—in Christchurch, New Zealand, in February 2011 and Chile in February 2010—have set America, specifically San Francisco, up for an earthquake of epic proportions. If Winchester is to be believed, the San Andreas Fault, which underpins the Bay Area, is strained to a "barely tolerable level," and is set to rock soon.

Naturally, people were terrified at this news, especially San Franciscans. But according to a new article in Scientific American written by a scientist based near San Francisco, there's actually less cause for concern than Winchester is letting on.

Enter Dr. Christie Rowe, a researcher in Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. According to Rowe, Winchester's concern for California is well-founded, but she adds that his "'facts' are wrong, and logic is deeply flawed."

Rowe makes a lot of great points, all of which you can read here, but this one is perhaps the most straightforward for laymen:

Mr. Winchester argued ... that the earthquake on one edge of the Pacific Plate would "...more probably trigger an event on the same tectonic plate family...". Possible? Yes. But one could just as well argue that the westward motion of the Pacific Plate during the Sendai earthquake would effectively relieve stress on the San Andreas at its eastern edge, thereby making an earthquake there less likely than before. Again, both ideas may appear to make logical sense—but this does not make either or both any more correct.


In other words, guessing when and where natural disasters will occur is so difficult as to be impossible. Instead of worry, the best you can do is ready your earthquake kit, plan your escape route, and hope for the best.

photo (cc) via Flickr user Kordian

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