Berkeley city: No truth to viral email predicting quake

The Hayward Fault runs along the East Bay hills and through the cities of Richmond, El Cerrito, Berkeley, Oakland, Fremont, San Jose and others.

UPDATE 4:07 pm: Genie Stowers, the professor who sent out the original email issued an apology this afternoon by email. Here it is:

Last week, I sent out an email to family and close friends and colleagues about recent earthquakes.

My intent was to pass on a message that they should take the occurrence of these recent earthquakes as an opportunity to make sure their earthquake kits and other emergency measures were up to date.

It is unfortunate that this email instead went viral and has caused great concern among many in the Berkeley area.

My message was not intended to be a commentary on earthquake science, on City of Berkeley preparedness, or on anything else except that folks should get ready. The message was intended to be, preparedness is good.

I apologize for what has happened and the concerns this caused. It was a mistake and I regret that it happened.

Genie Stowers

…………………………….

An email that has gone viral that predicts an imminent quake on the Hayward fault is causing widespread concern in Berkeley, but city officials say its premise is false.

The email, which began spreading on Friday, says that geologists have told Berkeley officials that the recent spate of small earthquakes suggest that there will be a 6.0 quake or higher on the Hayward Fault within the next two to three weeks.

City officials have not been specially briefed by geologists, and there is no way of predicting earthquakes, numerous city officials told Berkeleyside.

“I have not received any briefings,” said City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. “In addition, I do not believe that anyone knows how to predict the precise time an earthquake will happen on the Hayward fault. Thus, I would not give credence to such rumors.”

Here is the email that has gone viral:

“A student in my class tonight works in Berkeley City Hall and they have been getting briefings on the earthquakes recently in Berkeley on the Hayward Fault by geologists.

They have been told that what is particularly concerning to geologists is that these have been so deep. And because of the type of fault it is, these small swarms (there was a 1.6 about an hour ago plus 2 or 3 3.6 or above) build up pressure on the fault, not reduce it. They are saying that because of these swarms they are predicting there is a 30% of an earthquake above a 6.0 in the next two to three weeks.”

City officials are working hard to debunk the email since it has frightened many residents. Deputy City Manager Christine Daniel sent out this email Monday morning:

“We understand that after the earthquakes in the last couple of weeks, rumors have begun to circulate that City officials are meeting with representatives from the US Geological Survey (USGS) and it has been claimed that the USGS officials are predicting earthquakes,” Daniel wrote. “This is not accurate. The City of Berkeley has not been contacted by anyone from USGS in this regard, and in any event, the USGS does not predict earthquakes. As we all know, in the wake of disasters or even smaller earthquakes such as we have experienced recently, it is not unusual for misinformation to spread. However it is important to remember that while scientists all over the world are working to better understand earthquakes, no one has the ability to either predict them, nor to know whether small shakes are increasing or decreasing the pressure on a fault.”

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington had also gotten a copy of the email and started his own investigation into its source. He wrote to Professor Genie Stowers, a professor of public administration at San Francisco State University, who appeared to be the original sender of the email, to ask more about it, as well as some others. He did not get a response. Neither did Berkeleyside.

City Councilman Laurie Capitelli’s office also heard from concerned residents, and he sent out this response to their inquiries.

“Thanks for your e-mail.  This is a hugely  important topic.

Just to be clear, neither this office nor the Mayor’s office has received any briefings from USGS, or  professional geologists, and have heard no predictions from them like the one stated below.  (Who is this e-mail from?)

Having said that, we regularly encourage residents to organize their neighborhoods and prepare for disasters both individually and as local communities.  A large scale earthquake could hit any time.”

Berkeley has been hit with a number of earthquakes in the past 10 days, all centered on the Hayward Fault. The two biggest happened on Oct 20 when a 4.0  quake hit at 2:41 pm and on Oct. 27 at 5:36 am, when a 3.6 quake hit. There have been numerous aftershocks and other small quakes including two early today: a 1.4 at 7:38am this morning and a 2.4 at 2:42am this morning.

As Daniel’s email points out, and geophysicist Paul Caruso told Berkeleyside on October 24th, geologists cannot predict earthquakes. However, geologists do believe there will be a major earthquake soon in the Bay Area. The USGS website states: “Neither the USGS nor Caltech nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake. They do not know how, and they do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future. However based on scientific data, probabilities can be calculated for potential future earthquakes. For example, scientists estimate that over the next 30 years the probability of a major [earthquake] occurring in the San Francisco Bay area is 67% and 60% in Southern California.”

Related:

A 3.6 quake shakes Berkeley at 5:36 am Thursday [10.27.11]
Quakes: All you wanted to know but were afraid to ask [10.24.11]
Quake hits Berkeley: 4.2 downgraded to 3.9, then 4.0 [10.20.11]
Berkeley’s fourth quake of the day at 2307 Piedmont Avenue [10.20.11]
Trio of earthquakes gently shake Berkeley early Saturday [10.22.11]

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  • South Berkeleyan

    Is 30 years “soon”?

  • David Weisz

    Note that the prediction of a 67% chance of a major earthquake on a Bay Area fault some time in the next 30 years is a prediction that has been around for quite some time – it isn’t a new prediction.

  • http://www.davosnewbies.com lknobel

    For this email and similar ones, readers should be alert to the classic symptoms of urban legends. They invariably start with “a friend of mine” or “the son of a neighbor” or “someone who works in the department” or — you get the idea. There is no specificity — who was the expert who made the pronouncement. And they purport to have inside information that the powers that be are determined to suppress. 

    See http://www.snopes.com passim.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately we have short memories when it comes to small quakes or clusters of quakes, so every time it happens this sort of hand-wringing begins anew.

    Another problem is that a stopped clock is right twice a day. With no shortage of stopped-clock, hare-brained earthquake forecasters making specific quake predictions, it’s highly likely that at least one of them will appear to have been accurate when the “big one” hits. Hopefully, Berkeleyans will have enough sanity and discernment not to buy into that sort of hype when the inevitable quake occurs.

  • Ioannescaelius

    Well fabricated story. Got you a lot of hits, eh?

  • Completely Serious

    Dear Berkeley,

    If the dang Council would pass the Sun Don’t Shine, I mean, the Sunshine, Ordinance, they’d have to tell us everything right away and there would be no fear of this kind of thing.

    Love,

    The Warren Commission

  • http://www.davosnewbies.com lknobel

    Not sure what got your goat with this.

    An email was buzzing around Berkeley with misinformation that could easily lead to worried or even panicked residents. Should we ignore it?

  • guest

    Is anyone measuring the Radon levels there? Research it: The L’aquila quake in Italy in 2009. Someone predicted it, he was ignored and now Italian officials are on trial concerning ignoring warnings. it is not possible to really predict a quake, but radon emissions are an indication.

  • Anonymous

    Due to it’s unique and precision timing in addition to the alignment of tides and the phase of the moon at this autumnal harvest event, my colleague in evolutionary genetics quietly warned me of the re-emergence of……..yes, it’s him…..Godzilla.  You have been warned:  This is the way it always is in the beginning…………before the running and the screaming  |  10.31.11

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UTAORC2LANQF2ONEFJYXBSITTA bingo

    that is specious, at best, and only has any (potential) merit if the levels are monitored over time.  random readings from where would be useful?  the fault line is hundreds of miles long.  and radon levels in non-seismically active areas (Pennsylvania, West Virginia, etc.) can be higher.  this is just pseudo-science.

  • Heather W.

    It should be soon, since I’ve been hearing that 30 year projection for about 30 years now.

  • Julia S.

    Thanks for dispelling the rumor, Berkeleyside!

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/2007/09/local-recycle-reuse-hits-a-bur.html The Sharkey

    The Peace & Justice Commission should pass an Anti-Earthquate Ordinance banning earthquakes from the City of Berkeley.

    I’m sure it would be just as effective as the Anti-Nuke ordinance, and probably twice as effective as most of the other stuff they pass.

  • http://twitter.com/jcb10 John C. Baker

    Student told classmates, put into e-mail and sent to relatives. Sounds like a game of “telephone” gone awry. I’ll bet some idle chatter among City Hall folks got twisted into “geologists” telling the city something.

  • JW

    You left out a step, the email was not from a student, it was a professor, who teaches a course in “information knowledge management.”

    More coverage of the story here: 

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/us/e-mail-jolts-berkeley-into-quake-panic.html