By Rick Wilson
Engineering Geologist, California Geological Survey
"It's like the Earth has a mind of its own."
-- earthquake scientist Dr. Samantha Hill from the NBC miniseries 10.5 Apocalypse
As a geologist, I know that geologic processes are not always predictable. However, if you based your understanding of geology on the "faulty" science in some Hollywood disaster movies, you might think the Earth not only has a mind of its own, but also a great sense of humor.
When the original 10.5 miniseries came out in May 2004, we responded with a similar "geo-logical" movie review. It was a good outreach tool to address the falsehoods behind some of the geologic urban legends employed in that miniseries.
At the top of the list:
1) faults that opened, swallowed things, and then closed like jaws of death
2) the use of nuclear weapons to stop earthquakes
3) one of the biggest myths of all, California falling into the ocean.
These are all things people have seen in movies or heard were true but in reality wouldn't really happen.
Fast forward to the sequel: 10.5 Apocalypse. Built on the fictional world developed in the original miniseries, the catastrophic follow-up jumps from the fictional into the fantasy world. All in all, the new miniseries still has some relevant geologic truths to it ... even if it takes these truths too far at times.
10.5 Apocalypse begins where the original 10.5 miniseries leaves off: A large chunk of Southern California is being torn off of the mainland by a fault producing the devastating (and very fictional) magnitude 10.5 earthquake. Lucky for Californians, this is the end of the devastation that we have to endure (or at least what they show us). The following are some of the geologic events that occur in the sequel and a geo-logical analysis of the scientific facts and falsehoods behind them.
Within the first several minutes of the miniseries, a new geologic event is occurring. Offshore, a large, underwater fault has ruptured the seafloor, causing a "tidal wave" at the surface. Known in geologic circles as a seismic sea wave, or tsunami (a Japanese word for "harbor wave"), this 500-foot wave swallows a cruise ship and annihilates Honolulu a few hours later.
ANALYSIS: Earthquakes associated with a sudden vertical displacement of the ocean floor can cause tsunamis. However, in order to cause a wave the size shown in this miniseries, there would have to be displacement on the seafloor that is unknown in geologic history. What we did learn from the tsunami that devastated much of southern Asia in December of 2004, is that even a wave 30 to 40 feet high can destroy whole communities in low-lying areas.
Within a day or two of the humungous earthquake that split California in two, a number of volcanoes west of the Rockies suddenly start to erupt. Scientists in the miniseries say that the precursory signs of these eruptions are swarms of tremors, deforestation, harmonic tremors, and venting of gases. One dramatic shot shows a fast-moving cloud of hot ash rolling down the slopes of a volcano in Sun Valley, Idaho. These numerous new volcanoes are said to be the result of "hot spots" within the mantle that cause super-quick movement of magma through the Earth's crust, exploding at the surface.
ANALYSIS: Almost all the phrases used by the scientists in the miniseries are terms used by volcanologists. The hot ash cloud shown moving down the slope of the volcano is one of the most realistic visual effects in the movie. Such a cloud is called a pyroclastic flow, and is a devastating volcanic event that obliterates everything in its path. Having said that, some of the volcanic events occur too quickly. For example, although deforestation does occur in volcanically active areas because of an increase of carbon dioxide in the soil, the process of killing trees takes months in the real world, not the six hours portrayed in the miniseries. Most fictitious is the rapid development of the hot spots and eruption from these sources; such processes may take centuries or more to develop.
Related to this increased volcanic activity, groundwater percolates to the surface in desert areas and floods much of the Southwest. According to the scientists in the miniseries, the groundwater is being superheated by the shallow magma, forcing it to come up to the surface. In one dramatic scene, the water within Lake Mead gets so hot that it boils over Hoover Dam, causing the dam to fail and flood the downstream Colorado River area.
ANALYSIS: As exhibited by geysers and hot springs throughout the western U.S., volcanic activity can cause groundwater to heat up and come to the surface. However, this hot water would not form large lakes as shown in the miniseries. Once this hot water cools, it finds its way back down into the pore spaces in the rocks underground. In addition, a water body the size of Lake Mead would not boil over. Not only would it take a long time to boil such a large amount of water, much of the hot water would become gaseous (steam) once superheated to the boiling point.
Much of the action of the miniseries centers on Las Vegas, which is suffering from monstrous sinkholes that swallow skyscrapers. The apparent cause of these sinkholes is the acidic groundwater that has eaten away at the rock underground, causing the land surface above to collapse.
ANALYSIS: While it is true that sinkholes are caused by acidic ground waters eroding away carbonate rock, like in Florida, no such conditions exist in the thick alluvial sediments underlying Las Vegas. Having said that, excessive ground water withdrawal within areas of thick sediments that occur in Las Vegas or even our Central Valley have lead to broader, less conspicuous land subsidence -- in a much slower and less dramatic manner.
Lastly, in the final scenes, the culminating threat to the U.S. is the possible division of the country by a rapidly forming "rift fault" which starts in Montana and spreads north and south. The scientists in the miniseries claim that this is the reactivation of a rift that split the continent and formed a sea millions of years before. We also "learn" that the suddenness and speed of all these geologic events are related to a theory called "accelerated plate motions" in which the tectonic plates -- formerly part of an ancient super continent known as Pangaea -- are now reversing direction. The rebounding of the plates is causing the continents to go back together.
"Science" aside, the rift fault is heading towards a large nuclear power plant in Texas and, if undeterred, will cause global catastrophic impacts. Similar to the original 10.5 miniseries, scientists propose to use explosives to divert the fault and avert mega-disaster.
ANALYSIS: Geo-logically, there is a bit of truth in the background of this whole premise. It is true there was a super continent called Pangaea that broke up during the Jurassic period (about 180 million years ago). It's also true that there was a rift fault that formed a sea that divided the continent in the Cretaceous period (about 130 million years ago). However, these processes occurred over a span of millions of years. There is no scientific evidence for these processes to have been "accelerated" as this miniseries suggests happens. As for explosives stopping earthquakes? The answer is still no.
So, there you have it. In 10.5 Apocalypse -- with tsunamis sinking cruise ships, volcanoes blowing their tops, sinkholes swallowing Las Vegas skyscrapers, and a new rift dividing the continent -- there is plenty of action to keep the viewer entertained. The miniseries uses scientific phrases and ideas to show that there was some research behind these plot points. But keep in mind, just because the dialog sounds scientific doesn't necessarily mean it is geo-logical. Having said that, the Earth does sometimes seem to have a mind of its own . . .
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