Will California Ever Fall Into the Ocean? - Pacific Standard

Will California Ever Fall Into the Ocean?

Probably not, but the history behind that rumor is fascinating.
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An ad for San Andreas, an especially scientifically-sound film. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

An ad for San Andreas, an especially scientifically-sound film. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

It's a stale joke at this point: "The wife and I bought some oceanfront property in Nevada," says the grizzled old man. "There ain't no ocean in Nevada," says his buddy. The first guy chuckles, takes a long swig of Bud Lite, and responds: "Will be once that earthquake hits."

The implication here is that when The Big One comes for California—which, according to every seismologist, has been "any day now" for a while—it's going to take the Golden State into the ocean with it.

But this idea goes beyond jokes.

A query for the phrase "Will California fall into the ocean?" brings back over 73 million results. There are no shortage of stories dealing with the fallout of a giant quake thrusting the state into the ocean, from John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. island-creating scenario, to the 2004 movie 10.5. People believe that one day the Golden State is going to fall into the ocean. Where does this belief come from, and, more importantly, is it plausible?

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Let's start with the second question first.

"It's not going to happen," answers Egill Hauksson, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology. "There's no big hole out there in the ocean for California to fall into." Great. Simple enough. Thanks for reading, everyone!

As far as why California won't fall into the ocean, it's worth brushing up on a little Seismic Activity 101. Very briefly: The Earth's shell is not solid. Rather, it's composed of interlocking plates. Every now and then, the plates shift slightly, sometimes side-to-side, sometimes up-and-down. These movements are the reason for every significant land formation, from volcanos to mountain ranges, to deep underwater trenches, to the current locations of our continents. When plates shift, they cause earthquakes. Where and how these earthquakes affect the land is dictated by where the plates are located, and how they're shifting.

In the case of California, the plate in question is the mighty San Andreas Fault, the one Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson battles in the aptly-titled summer blockbuster. However, the fault doesn't move east-west in a way where a split might be possible. Instead, it shifts north-south. "If you were on a beach west of San Francisco, you would see Oakland move to your right," Hauksson says. "And if you were standing in Oakland, you would see San Francisco move to your right." As far as the plates moving further apart—and, thus, breaking off into the sea—that simply isn't going to occur.

"There's no big hole out there in the ocean for California to fall into."

The north-south movement does, however, hint at our planet's mind-boggling future: "The Pacific Plate is moving to the northwest with respect to the North American Plate at approximately 46 millimeters (two inches) per year," writes Justin Pressfield, a United States Geological Survey spokesperson, in an email. You can see what this movement looks like at the Paleomap Project, an attempt to show the Earth's geography over the past billion, and future 250 million, years. In 85 million years, then, Los Angeles will be located near Alaska. But before that happens, an even more drastic culture clash will occur: As Planet Earth brilliantly put it, in 15 million years, the Dodgers and Giants will once again be crosstown rivals.

There's another reason to quit buying inland property for eventual untarnished views of the Pacific: The power of the San Andreas fault isn't going to reach the highest levels of earthquake damage. "The current estimates for the largest earthquakes expected in California on the San Andreas are in the low M8s," says Dr. Jen Andrews, a seismologist at the California Institute of Technology. "It is thought that the fault is not long enough or wide enough to support a larger magnitude rupture, such as are experienced on subduction zone faults [in Chile and Japan]." Essentially, take the Little Boy atomic bomb that detonated on Hiroshima, Japan, and multiply it by 100.

And don't expect any tsunamis plowing through the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Bay, as occurs in any number of apocalypse porn flicks. "The reason you have tsunamis is that in the open ocean, waves build up quite high, and when you get to landfall there's no place for the energy to go but on land," says James A. Jacobs, a hydrogeologist for the Clearwater Group. "So, while you might have a tsunami coming across the Pacific and going through the Bay, you're not going to have both an earthquake and tsunami."

This isn't meant to be taken as soft lullabies to allow you to tuck yourselves in to a peaceful slumber. Because the Big One is coming, one day or another. While California won't break off, there will be plenty of damage and casualties if the land moves as much as it did during the great earthquake of 1906, when plates shifted north-south by nearly 20 feet in less than a minute. That will cause buildings to topple and bridges to collapse. While a 2013 retrofitting supposedly protects the BART Transbay Tube from a sideways movement of that magnitude, it's certainly not the best place to be during the Big One. So consider this a reminder for California residents to get themselves an earthquake preparation kit.

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But let's return to the initial conceit: People think that California is going to fall into the ocean, despite every kind of seismologist saying otherwise. In 1964, Alaska suffered the second-highest earthquake ever recorded, yet no one mentions the Last Frontier falling into the sea. So, where did this false idea come from? One possibility: the fascinating alternative history/critique/cultural analysis of California's impact/apocalyptic fiction—Curt Gentry's 1968 book, The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California. The book's central thrust is that a massive 9.0 Richter earthquake ruptured the San Andreas fault in 1969 and cast the coastal sections of the state into the sea.

The book's prologue, in fact, mentions a series of predictions from California's long line of doomsday preachers, who claimed the state would end in the sea. "With only slight exaggeration, it would appear that prior to [Gentry's fictional earthquake] event, every astrologer, soothsayer, and self-proclaimed mystic in America foresaw the destruction of the Golden State," Gentry writes. The most direct came from psychic Edgar Cayce, who in 1941 envisioned the loss of California into the sea would be accompanied by the return of the lost city of Atlantis from the depths. (In fact, much of Gentry's novel cribs from Cayce's scenario.)

But even Cayce was late to the party. Before him, there was Aimee Semple McPherson, the L.A. evangelist whose doomsday predictions wisely lacked specificity, and Missionary Mary McDermitt of the Flying Rollers, whose accurate prediction of San Francisco's toppling—punishment for its sin and depravity—was celebrated in 1906 with a band-led party after news reached Michigan. However, there is one possible originator that predates even the Great Quake.

In 1902, the California Historical Society of Southern California published a piece entitled "Some Eccentric Characters of Early Los Angeles," written by J.M. Guinn. In one section, Guinn mentions the Reverend William Money, a Scottish man whose vision of Jesus told him to travel West. After he published the 1854 book Reform of the New Testament Church, Money became the state's first cult leader. Guinn's article mentions the publication of a "globe or map" entitled "Wm. Money's Discovery of the Ocean," published in 1880, which showed the city of San Francisco missing, toppled into the ocean. Why create a map like this? Simply put, it was artistic license. Money really, really didn't like San Francisco. Too many brothels and bars for his teetotaler ilk.

Which is to say that maybe—just maybe—the whole reason people have this false belief that California's eventually going to end up in the ocean is because a dude named Money didn't like the Bay.

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The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.

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