Every year tens of millions of people take part in a massive earthquake drill called the Great ShakeOut, which teaches people what to do and how to respond in case of a ground-rattling temblor. Over the years all sorts of theories have developed around how to keep yourself safe -- many of them untrue. We talked to an expert who debunked some of the bizarre myths surrounding these natural events.
Meet Mark Benthien, the Director for Communication, Education and Outreach for the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), headquartered at the University of Southern California. He has a degree in Geophysics and a Master in Public Policy. He leads efforts to increase earthquake awareness, reduce economic losses and save lives. He's also the lead organizer for the annual Great California ShakeOut. He was recognized in 2012 by the White House as a "Champion of Change" for advancing the causes of earthquake and tsunami education and safety.
Can you explain the "triangle of life" theory and is it actually true?
The "triangle of life" is an Internet conspiracy theory that promotes remaining uncovered during earthquake shaking, claiming that all desks or tables will always be crushed because buildings always collapse. These are false assumptions. Most injuries in earthquakes are caused by falling or flying objects, not buildings, and getting beneath a desk or table provides shelter. All reputable Urban Search And Rescue teams recommend the globally recognized earthquake safety protocol "Drop, Cover, and Hold On." Learn more at earthquakecountry.org/dropcoverholdon.
A lot of people were told to stand in a doorway in the past -- is that actually a good place to be? Are there any other false theories people should know to avoid?
An enduring earthquake image of California is a collapsed adobe home with the door frame as the only standing part. From this came our belief that a doorway is the safest place to be during an earthquake. True- if you live in an old, unreinforced adobe house. In modern houses, doorways are no stronger than any other part of the house. Importantly they also do not provide shelter from falling or flying objects, and if several people are in a room they may not all fit in the door!
See photos of people participating in earthquake drills:
If you're in a tall building, are lower floors safer?
Modern tall buildings (built since the late 1970s) are designed to withstand significant earthquake shaking. Much of this is due to flexibility in steel frames rather than stiff concrete or brick buildings of the past. This means that modern tall buildings will sway by design, and higher floors will move more than lower floors. Older buildings may collapse partially, but rarely completely; in these buildings it may be safer to be higher, rather than at the bottom of the collapsed building.
If you're driving, should you stay in your car during and earthquake?
Yes. Pull over to the side of the road, stop and set the parking brake. Avoid overpasses, bridges, power lines, signs and other hazards. Stay inside the vehicle until the shaking is over. If a power line falls on the car, stay inside until a trained person removes the wire.
If you can't find a desk or table to get under, where is the next best place to take shelter?
The key is to "drop" to the ground wherever you are when strong shaking begins; cover your head and neck with one arm and if you can't get under something for shelter, move against a nearby interior wall and protect your head and neck with your arms. Avoid exterior walls, windows, hanging objects, mirrors, tall furniture, large appliances, and kitchen cabinets with heavy objects or glass.
Is it possible for the ground to ever split wide open?
Yes, though not along the shifting fault. Earthquakes only happen due to friction between two blocks of the Earth's crust that suddenly slips, and sends shaking in all directions. However surface soils and hillsides can settle or slump, opening up shallow cracks.
Do small earthquakes stop big ones from occurring?
No; a magnitude 8 earthquake releases 1 million times more energy than a magnitude 4, and 1,000 times more than a magnitude 6. Even if 1,000 magnitude 6 earthquakes were to occur in a region, they wouldn't happen in just the right location to prevent a larger earthquake; in fact they could increase stress along a particular fault that leads to a large earthquakes.
Can animals sense when earthquakes are coming?
No reputable scientific studies have confirmed any ability of animals to sense earthquakes before the ground begins to shift along the fault. However animals may sense the initial earthquake waves that arrive before stronger shaking. People can feels these too but we are not as close to the ground or are often distracted by daily life.
Is there such thing as "earthquake weather"?
No. Earthquakes begin many miles beneath the earth's surface. Atmospheric weather only affects the first few feet beneath the surface. No reputable scientific studies have found a repeatable correlation between weather patterns and earthquakes.
Most importantly, what is the very best thing to do in an earthquake and what should everyone do to be prepared?
When you feel shaking, immediately DROP down onto your hands and knees. An earthquake is less likely to knock you over in this position, and you are a smaller target for anything falling or flying. Then, COVER your head with your arms. Clasp your hands around your neck. Bend over to protect your vital organs. Finally, HOLD ON by gripping a table leg or other part of your shelter. Continue protecting your head and neck with your other arm. Remain on your knees and bent over, ready to move with your shelter when it shifts during the shaking. After the shaking is over, wait a moment and check all around and above you before getting up or leaving your shelter.
See photos from some of the worst quakes:
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