Bad Geology Movies: 10.5, 2004



Kim Delaney, Beau Bridges


Premise: What if there were a whole series of mega-deep faults under the western coast of the United States that could trigger a magnitude 10.5 earthquake in Los Angeles?



This was a television miniseries with two episodes, presumably each of two hours duration. This movie has some of the most absurd instances of pseudoscience that I have ever observed. It was bad. I don’t even know where to begin. So I’ll begin at the beginning.

The show opens with a massive earthquake in Washington state. I admit I wasn’t paying attention to where the seismologists were, but what I do remember is this:

1) Somehow the magnitude of the earthquake – a single earthquake, mind you – increased over time. That doesn’t happen. One earthquake comes from a single rupture/break/motion on a fault. The shaking starts, then it tapers off. Now if other earthquakes were triggered, well, they’d be separate earthquakes and have their own magnitudes.

2) You can’t measure magnitude while the earthquake is happening. This is measured after the fact, using the complete seismographic record. You need to know the timing of all the various seismic waves generated by the earthquake and their magnitudes. You can do that pretty quickly after the quake is over, but not while it’s happening.

3)Speaking of seismic waves, you’d never have “s-waves off the chart!” as exclaimed by one of the movie’s characters in reference to this first quake. S-waves tend to be pretty small compared to the surface waves (which are the ones that do all the damage). Maybe the writers thought that s-waves and surface waves were the same thing… Not.

4)The claim is made by the main character that the earthquake hypocenter (the point in the Earth’s surface where the fault movement is actually taking place) is ‘sub-asthenosphere.’ She later asserts that the earthquake hypocenter must be about 700 kilometers down. Rocks at that depth do not fracture and form cracks or faults. It is solid rock (part of the lower mantle), but temperatures and pressures are so high that the rock will stretch, atom-by-atom, rather than actually fracture and form a fault.

As the movie progressed, there were still references that baffled me.

1) The main character talked about side-to-side motion from the earthquake, later getting excited when she realised it wasn’t side-to-side, bu lateral-skip. Seriously, I have no idea what that is…

2) They made measurements of the magnetic field, for radon gas, and collected soil samples to “prove” these 700-km-down faults. I have no inkling of how that would work. I mean, maybe a magnetic anomaly is something that could happen. Actually, no. I don’t think so. And what about those ruptured pockets of poisonous gasses? Where are those coming from? No idea.

3) There were these wierd thermal activity maps (or something) with which they were identifying the stresses building up prior to a quake. From this, they were predicting earthquakes heading south down the west coast. Again, I have no idea what that was. No such thing exists. And we can’t predict earthquakes.

The funniest part of the movie is when they proposed to fuse the San Andreas Fault using nuclear warheads. Why must all the ‘bad geology movies’ involve nuclear weapons? Anyway, you can’t fuse a fault. You can’t. You can relieve some stress, and maybe mitigate a potential earthquake, but you can’t fuse a fault. Sorry.

The second episode was nearly as funny as the first. (I don’t think it was supposed to be funny, by the way.)

They were drilling their seven (or was it five, or six) perfect holes for the nuclear warheads. The director of FEMA was overseeing each one (why?!). The drilling was slow though. You know why? “Solid layers of rock, all the way down.” What did they expect? Caves? Marshmallows? Of course, the drill they used was also ridiculous, but we’ll let that go.

There’s this river that changes direction after a massive earthquake. I questioned our seismologist’s cognitive abilities after she suggested that a magnetic field could have caused the river to change directions.

The climax of the film is where the San Andreas fault opens up – complete with crazy gas fissures – causing part of southern California to become an island. This follows the misconception that activity along the San Andreas fault will cause part of California to slip into the sea. That’s simply not true. The San Andreas slips such that western California will simply move northward along coast of North America until if finally hits Alaska. It is not going to sink into the sea!

Nor would any fault (even one rooted in the mantle, 700 km down) suddenly open into a vertical-walled chasm over the course of only a few minutes. Though I suppose it does make for good TV. Provided you know NOTHING about geology.


There are other glaring errors and weirdnesses in the movie, but I think I’ll stop there. This movie has its problems. Of all the recent movies (1990’s and newer) I’ve watched and reviewed thus far, this one seems to have the most scientific errors. I think I was actually yelling at my computer as I watched it. It was that bad. Maybe the personal stories in the movie were cute and touching, but I couldn’t get to that, because the science was so awful. That’s my curse.

By the way, there’s a sequel to this: 10.5 Apocalypse. I won’t be seeing that.

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