back to top

15 "San Andreas" Events In Order Of Increasing Scientific Inaccuracy

"The magnetic pulse rate is spiking!" SPOILERS, obviously.

Posted on

San Andreas came out this weekend, and it is for sure the next awesomely terrible disaster flick. But there is that pesky problem of scientific accuracy...

Warner Bros.

The movie stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot who tries to save his family during a massive earthquake along the San Andreas Fault.

So I decided to watch the movie with a cadre of accomplished geophysicists.

Warner Bros.

The group included two geology professors from UCLA, a handful of graduate students, and a professional geologist working in Southern California.

Here are some things that happened in the movie, ranked from most to least likely to happen in real life:

1. There were a bunch of earthquakes following the larger earthquakes.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): Throughout the movie, larger quakes are followed by smaller ones.

What the scientists thought: Aftershocks (smaller earthquakes that follow a larger one) are a common event in the aftermath of a large seismic event. They can occur right after a quake, or even decades after a big one, according to William Newman, Ph.D., a UCLA professor of seismology. The movie also seemed to suggest that an aftershock is more likely to occur if you are having a heartfelt conversation with a loved one. The scientists were less confident of this phenomenon.

Consensus: Accurate.

2. Before the tsunami destroyed San Francisco, the water withdrew dramatically.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): Before a massive tsunami overtakes San Francsico, the water in the bay withdraws.

What the scientists thought: Though the tsunami itself is unrealistic, the fact that the water withdrew before it hit was spot-on, the geologists agreed. Debbie Weiser, a geophysics graduate student at UCLA and a USGS scientist, cautioned that, while this may happen, it is not guaranteed to happen. It can vary based on what portion of the wave is hitting a certain area. Still, the group felt that Hollywood should get some props for that one.

Consensus: Accurate.

3. There are a ton of fires in the aftermath of the quake.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): Perhaps the only thing more prevalent than new modes of transportation for The Rock's character were the fires that engulfed Los Angeles and San Francisco after their earthquakes.

What the scientists thought: During an earthquake, even one much smaller than the ones dramatized in the film, it is common for gas lines to break and cause fires, according to Jennifer Scully, a UCLA geophysicist. She adds that it is important to know how to turn off your gasline if you live in an earthquake-prone region. Still an open question, however, is why the only thing in the movie that did NOT blow up was an actual gas station.

Consensus: Accurate.

4. The rooftop pool in Downtown L.A. made some crazy waves during the quake.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): Amid the chaos during the first big earthquake of the movie, there is a brief camera cut to a rooftop pool, which has developed a massive and unified swaying wave.

What the scientists thought: According to Weiser, the rooftop pool created a kind of wave that is known in science-y circles as a seiche. This would totally happen, she said. In fact, it happens frequently.

Consensus: Accurate.

5. Downtown L.A. shook much worse than the Caltech campus area.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): During the initial quake in Los Angeles, the shaking (and damage) is significantly more severe in Downtown L.A. compared with the Caltech campus, which is not far away.

What the scientists thought: Scully said that this is a reasonable scenario, as Pasadena is on top of less unconsolidated sediment than Downtown L.A. is, and it's closer to bedrock. Still, the group stressed, it is important to note that most of the larger and newer buildings in Downtown L.A. are built, even with the underlying geology, to withstand large earthquakes. Less accurate, I would say, is the extent to which Caltech remained unscathed throughout the film — they are scientists, not magicians.

Consensus: Accurate.

6. The earthquake was so big you could feel it in New York City.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): In perhaps one of the best lines delivered in the movie, Paul Giamatti's character warns the world that the next big earthquake will be so large that it will be felt all the way on the East Coast. Later on, news reports show this to be true.

What the scientists thought: Some in the group actually felt this was plausible. The possibility of there being some "very minor shaking" (seismometers can feel things on the other side of the planet, after all) felt in New York is not impossible, Newman said.

Consensus: Not impossible.

7. From the air, you could see a massive seismic wave traveling across the ground.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): As The Rock flies over L.A., he sees a seismic wave roll through the city. Sidenote: This special effect was awesome.

What the scientists thought: Seismic waves could potentially be seen on the surface, according to Weiser. But the vertical exaggeration was absurd, she stressed. But it was also awesome, I will stress.

Consensus: Highly exaggerated.

8. The buildings shake quite rapidly during the quake.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): Not only do the buildings in both L.A. and San Francisco sway dramatically, they do so quite rapidly.

What the scientists thought: Tall skyscrapers are actually designed to sway back and forth during a quake to prevent serious structural damage. According to Newman, though, the shaking portrayed in the film was far too rapid to be realistic.

Consensus: Highly exaggerated.

9. The San Andreas Fault breaks apart and forms a massive chasm.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): After The Rock steals a pickup truck from an armed looter and leaves Bakersfield, the ground opens THE FUCK up.

What the scientists thought: There are two glaring problems here, according to the whole group of geologists. First, while you may have some minor openings form, a fault like the San Andreas would never move apart — it's just not how that kind of fault works. Second, they had the fault move in the wrong direction. To that I say, "How DARE you, Hollywood?"

Consensus: Inaccurate.

10. A newly discovered fault in Nevada connects to the San Andreas fault to form some sort of superfault.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): Paul Giamatti's character, the hero geologist, looks at a map, grabs a Sharpie, and connects a newly discovered fault in Nevada to the San Andreas fault. By this process and this process alone, he figures out how screwed everyone really is.

What the scientists thought: When I asked the team what was going on here, Weiser replied, "I'd like to know, too." The group speculated that perhaps they did this to make the San Andreas Fault bigger so that it could generate a much larger earthquake. The problem with that scenario, according to Newman, is that it makes this new fault take a massive, near-90-degree turn. This would actually reduce the fault's ability to move, he said, not increase it.

Consensus: Perplexingly inaccurate.

11. “Magnetic pulses” are accurately monitored from inside the Hoover Dam, a massive energy-generating facility.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): Two geologists travel to the Hoover Dam to monitor small earthquakes so that they can test their fancy new earthquake-prediction model. This model is based, for some reason, on "magnetic pulses."

What the scientists thought: Ignoring the fact that none of the scientists had any idea what the movie was talking about when they repeatedly referred to magnetic pulses, Rob Curren, a professional geologist in California, had a very good point: Why would you study them in a power plant that is generating a remarkably large amount of electricity? This electricity would surely get in the way of the signal. Other questions we, as a group, would like answered: How did you get a permit to do that so quickly, and why the FUCK do you need to be INSIDE the Hoover Dam in the first place?

Consensus: Perplexingly inaccurate.

12. Panicked people run around during the quakes.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): During the numerous large earthquakes depicted in this film, one common theme was people running around in a panic. Being an extra in this movie must have been a workout.

What the scientists thought: This is not going to happen, even in a much smaller quake, said Ivy Curren, a sixth-year UCLA graduate student. If you look at videos of people during an earthquake, she said, you see that "they can't move, they lie on the ground, they hold on to a table or a bar, and they just move with the earth as it moves."

Consensus: Remarkably inaccurate.

13. A geologist predicts earthquakes.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): Throughout the movie, a central plot element is Paul Giamatti's ability to predict earthquakes by monitoring "magnetic pulses."

What the scientists thought: You cannot predict earthquakes. People have tried for a long, long time, and it's probably never going to happen. According to Newman, "the only prudent thing to do … is be prepared." He did add, however, that while "it is unlikely we will ever be able to predict earthquakes in a real sense, we may be able to identify geographic regions over a period of time that are at heightened risk."

Consensus: Likely impossible.

Important sidenote: Lingsen Meng, Ph.D., a professor of seismology at UCLA, stresses that the movie's focus on prediction misses an important advance in earthquake research: early warning systems. AFTER an earthquake hits one region, it is possible, with a network of GPS sensors or seismographs, to send word to another area that one is on the way with up to 30 seconds' lead time. That's enough time to stop trains, turn off gas lines, stop surgeries, duck for cover, etc.

14. A magnitude-9.6 earthquake strikes California along the San Andreas Fault.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): The central focus of this movie, besides Alexandra Daddario's intoxicating eyes, is a magnitude-9.6 earthquake generated by the San Andreas Fault.

What the scientists thought: This is simply not possible in California, the team stressed. "We just don't have a big enough fault," said Meng. Also, the team added, the San Andreas Fault is a transform fault, which means that two different plates move in a side-to-side manner. This kind of fault is unlikely to produce such a large seismic event. According to the USGS, the largest possible quake the San Andreas Fault could likely generate is an 8.3.

Consensus: Demonstrably impossible.

15. An earthquake along the San Andreas Fault triggers a massive 100-foot tsunami.

Warner Bros.

The scene(s): After the earthquake strikes San Francisco, a massive wave higher than the Golden Gate Bridge charges in and inundates the city.

What the scientists thought: This was "the most egregious" element of the movie, according to Newman. First of all, the group said, an earthquake on land (where the quake theoretically occurred) could never directly trigger a tsunami. It would need to have happened underwater, which would've displaced the water and pushed it onto land. Second, as the group pointed out, a tsunami is not a single event, nor is it a single massive cresting wave; it's a more gradual process akin to the tide rising dangerously fast. Finally, as Weiser said, the heroes in this film are on the 10th floor of a skyscraper when they are hit by the wave, making it a roughly 100-foot wave. That's pretty unrealistic, she said.

Consensus: Egregiously impossible.

Click here and here for some more info on how to be prepared for an earthquake.

Every. Tasty. Video. EVER. The new Tasty app is here!