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There's a lot of pseudo-scientific / mystically authoritative bloviating out there (as usual) following the latest earthquake. Let's look at a little science and at what to do to deal with this.

First, is TV news sensationalizing things? Probably. But...

  • There are areas with real damage.
  • There are patterns to seismic activity -- sometimes.

Peruse a geology text or hunt-around online for a science-based site. If you don't have time, here's a crash course.

Clusters of small quakes CAN precede something bigger. Likewise, they can sometimes be interpreted, after the fact, as stress-relievers, too, but there isn't a lot of evidence for that idea.

As far as "living in a seismic area"-? That's not as simple as saying Oklahoma is in "Tornado Alley." Anywhere can become "seismic" -- the biggest earthquake ever recorded in North America was the New Madrid Quake, near St. Louis. It made the Mississippi River flow backwards.

All of North America is drifting westward. If you're in the L.A. Basin, you reside on the Pacific Plate, and it is being subducted by the North American Plate. "Subducted" means the neighbor's big throw-rug is getting bunched-up as it gets pushed over the top of the little throw-rug you're on, which also gets bunched-up. Except, unlike resilient rugs, things fracture and break as the bunching occurs. And there's sideways dragging, too.

The "dragging" is the San Andreas Fault, which is a massive left-lateral strike-slip fault. That's the part that makes people joke about L.A. becoming a suburb of San Francisco in a few million years. In terms of subduction and the throw-rugs, the rugs are sliding in opposite directions as one runs over the other one (the "left-lateral" aspect).

That analogy describes part of it. Another part is that we are on a long north-south (but locally east-west) planetary abberration known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. It is much bigger than just North America, or Southern California, but it causes earthquakes here -- and in Japan and all around the ring-- and volcanoes from California's Mt. Lassen (which last erupted early last century) and Mt. Shasta, to Oregon's Mt. Hood, to Washington's Mt. St. Helens (which blew big in 1980) and Mt. Rainier, and everywhere around the Pacific Rim, including Japan's Mt. Fuji, and Southeast Asia's Krakatoa, which darkened the whole planet in the early 1800s. The Pacific Ring of Fire is as much about earthquakes as volcanoes. It's all because solid ground isn't solid. Things move. And we've come to understand the "how" and a lot of the "why," and where it's going. That is the most "macro" part. And it has continental, physiographic provincial, regional, local, and interrelated dimensions all around the ring, including Southern California.

In fact, there's the especially interesting "local" aspect of the north-south compression here, where the San Gabriel and San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains are the "transverse ranges," running east-west instead of north-south like all other major ranges in North America. They're squeezed-up out of the earth along the San Andreas Fault. And that north-south compression may be why we don't have huge earthquakes all the time, like Mexico City and Japan.

All this adds-up to why things are too complicated for seismologists to be able to predict big earthquakes, or even the next earthquake. But that doesn't mean "they don't really know anything." Past events that were big enough left records in the rock. Historic accounts can indicate patterns.

And when you know patterns -- even a little -- we can calmly prepare for something that is hundreds of years overdue.

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Buy a good camping stove. If you're not experienced with them, buy one that uses gas cartridges. Get plenty of waterproof matches (plumbing will break, and things will get wet). Stock up on canned food (and get a manual can-opener). Get lots of jugs for water storage and fill them (careful not to create a weight hazard that will fall through the floor). Get a tent and sleeping bags. Practice setting it up. Store it all in a backyard shed that won't get crushed by a falling tree or utility pole, and that won't be inaccessible because of downed live wires. Or use a hall closet if you live in an apartment (but don't put all that water in one place unless you're on a concrete slab, because it's too heavy).

Use heavy trashbags as you prepare, and make sure you have a lot of them. Add some clothes, towels, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, soap, plenty of tp, etc. And twice a year when you change the clocks and the smoke alarm batteries, change half the water (use it on plants or the lawn; we are in a drought). Rotate newer canned food through your stash, eating things before they get too old.

Know where your circuit breakers are and how to turn them off. Shorting wires cause fires. Get an old wrench (or buy a cheap one) and size it to your gas meter. Wire it to the pipe with a coat hanger. If you don't know how to turn off the meter, go online or call the gas company now -- not after a quake. Untended broken gas pipes cause explosions and fires, so learn to turn things off. It's an easy and essential skill.

It isn't rocket science to make basic preparations. And being prepared means you have no need to panic. Unless you're surrounded by others who do not prepare, and look to you because you have stuff. So educate your friends and neighbors as you learn what to do. You don't want to experience that old "Twilight Zone" episode as the family with the back yard bomb shelter...

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Larry Wines

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