TIME Natural Disasters

Here’s What Seismologists Have to Say About the Science of ‘San Andreas’

California's probably not experiencing a tsunamis anytime soon

The earthquakes at the center of San Andreas, the Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson disaster movie that hits theaters Friday, are so powerful that they seem to destroy anything and everything across the state of California. The Los Angeles and San Francisco skylines crumble in what we’re told is the strongest earthquake of all time—a magnitude 9.6 on the Richter scale.

But it turns out a 9.6 earthquake would be impossible along the San Andreas fault—at least according to seismologists. And that’s just the start of errors that make the movie somewhat less than factual. Here’s what seismologists are calling into question:

1. The size of the earthquake

An earthquake along the San Andreas fault couldn’t exceed a magnitude 8.2, according to U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucile Jones. That’s 126 times weaker than the imagined earthquake in the movie. (Because of the logarithmic basis of the Richter scale, each whole number increase in the rating means a tenfold increase in the magnitude of the quake.) There have been much more powerful earthquakes, including a magnitude 9.5 in Chile in 1960, the largest ever. But those have occurred only in subduction zones, where two plates meet and one sinks beneath the other. The San Andreas, a transform fault, is the meeting place of small tectonic plates that are slipping away from each other.

2. The damage an earthquake could cause

A 2008 study found that a worst-case scenario earthquake of 7.8 magnitude in Southern California could cause $213 billion in damage and leave 1,800 people dead and 50,000 severely injured. A total of five high-rises and 1,500 smaller buildings would be expected to collapse across the city. But those figures, while dramatic, seem small compared to the number of skyscrapers we see crumbling left and right and the countless people who burn, drown or fall from fatal heights in San Andreas. To be fair, the Rock never stops to give the audience precise death tolls or injury numbers—he’s too busy saving jumping out of a moving plane, out maneuvering a tsunami and, ultimately, saving his family. But with Los Angeles essentially razed and San Francisco largely underwater or on fire, it seems like the potential devastation is beyond what could ever happen in real life.

3. The earthquake triggered a massive tsunami

In addition to facing several earthquakes and a seemingly endless number of aftershocks, the characters in San Andreas have to confront a tsunami of gargantuan proportions. That’s flat out impossible, seismologists say. There’s a small possibility that a California earthquake could trigger an offshore landslide, which might in turn trigger a small tsunami that hits California. But that tsunami would be much, much smaller than the one in the movie—which seems to swamp all of San Francisco—and only hit a very narrow part of the coast.

Read More: 3 Places Where the Next Big Earthquake Could Hit

4. A California earthquake could be felt on the East Coast

An earthquake in California may be felt in Nevada and other neighboring states, but it would never be felt on the East Coast. Certainly, it wouldn’t cause damage to the White House as San Andreas suggests.

5. Seismologists can predict earthquakes

In San Andreas, Paul Giamatti plays a California Institute of Technology (Caltech) who has discovered the key to predicting when and where earthquakes can occur. But real-life Caltech assistant professor Jean-Paul Ampuero says predicting earthquakes is not something seismologists are even close to doing. He called it the “holy grail” of seismology. Seismologists wish they could discover a way to predict earthquakes, but most evidence suggests it’s impossible. That said, some disaster preparedness experts advocate for an early warning systems that will alert people to an approaching earthquake. This technology doesn’t predict earthquakes but rather alerts affected residents that one has begun.

But San Andreas got one thing right: you should prepare for an earthquake

While seismologists panned the science in San Andreas, they praised its focus on preparedness. The main characters know exactly what to do when the big one hits. One character tells people to get under a table and hold. Another points out that landlines will still work when cellular service is down and directs people to higher ground when there’s a tsunami warning.

“Although the science part is wrong, that’s not going to be your experience of an earthquake. Your experience is going to be an emotional experience,” said Jones. “I would hope people look at this and say ‘I really want to get some of that emergency response training.’”

TIME Archaeology

New Species of Ancient Human Found in Africa

Cleveland Museum of Natural History

These ancient humans had small teeth

A new species of ancient human has been discovered in Ethiopia.

Researchers found approximately 3.5 million-year-old jaw bones and teeth in the Afar region of Ethiopia; the study published in Nature suggests this hominin is a new species, despite being alive around the same time as other known human ancestors.

Lead researcher Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of physical anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, told BBC News, “We had to look at the detailed anatomy and morphology of the teeth and the upper and lower jaws, and we found major differences. This new species has very robust jaws. In addition, we see this new species had smaller teeth. The canine is really small—smaller than all known hominins we have documented in the past.”

This new species is called Australopithecus deyiremeda, which means “close relative” in the Afar language, and its discovery shows there may be more diversity in human ancestry than was previously thought.


Scientists Figure Out How to Retrieve ‘Lost’ Memories

The latest research shows memories “lost” to amnesia aren’t gone forever; they’re just not accessible

Mice certainly aren’t men, but they can teach us a lot about memories. And in the latest experiments, mice are helping to resolve a long-simmering debate about what happens to “lost” memories. Are they wiped out permanently, or are they still there, but just somehow out of reach?

Researchers in the lab of Susumu Tonegawa at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT conducted a series of studies using the latest light-based brain tracking techniques to show that memories in certain forms of amnesia aren’t erased, but remain intact and potentially retrievable. Their findings, published Thursday in the journal Science, are based on experiments in mice, but they could have real implications for humans, too.

MORE: How to Improve Your Memory Skills

The mice were trained to remember getting a shock in a certain chamber. The scientists then used protein labels to tag the specific cells in the hippocampus of the brain that were activated and responsible for making that memory. According to Tomas Ryan, lead author of the paper, anywhere from 3% to 5% of the cells in a portion of the hippocampus are recruited to form a memory. When these mice were then placed into the same room again, they froze, recalling and anticipating the shock. But when the animals were given a drug that interrupts the memory-making process immediately after the shock, they no longer remembered the shock and didn’t freeze if placed in the room.

Then the researchers tried to retrieve the lost memory by simply activating just the circuit of cells that were responsible for the memory — without the shock. They did this using a technique called optogenetics, in which laser lights stimulate the tagged cells in the hippocampus. When the circuit was activated, the animals froze again, even if they were in a neutral room that they didn’t associate with the shock. The results suggest, says Ryan, that “this type of amnesia in general is due to inaccessibility of a memory; the memory itself is still present.”

MORE: You Asked: Do Brain Games Really Improve Memory?

While the studies were done in mice, the findings could have implications for memory loss in humans. Specifically, the work suggests that memories lost after a traumatic brain injury such as a concussion, car accident or even a stressful event or some forms of dementia may be retrievable. How successful that may be depends on how soon after the memory-robbing event the recall occurs; it’s more likely to happen, says Ryan, soon after the traumatic event and before the memory is completely stored in the brain. But if the brain is severely damaged, then it’s possible that the process of storing the memory itself is compromised, and the memory won’t be retrievable.

Still, there may be conditions where being able to find lost memories is critical, and these results indicate that those memories are still there, it’s a just a matter of finding the best way to retrieve them, which hasn’t been worked out yet for people.

TIME Year in Space

See Scenes From Astronaut Scott Kelly’s Second Month in Space

This is the second month of a visual diary of the astronaut's year-long journey in space. Scott Kelly will be the first American astronaut to spend 12 months aboard the International Space Station

TIME is following Kelly’s mission in the new series, A Year In Space. Watch the trailer here.

TIME weather

May Is Already the Wettest Month in Texas History

A home on the Blanco River was taken off its foundation after heavy overnight rain caused flash flooding in Wimberley, Texas, May 24, 2015.
Rodolfo Gonzalez—AP A home on the Blanco River was taken off its foundation after heavy overnight rain caused flash flooding in Wimberley, Texas, May 24, 2015.

'It has been one continuous storm after another'

Flooding in Texas has taken the lives of at least 19 people and caused a virtual standstill across the state with school closings and road closures. It turns out all that rainfall has also set at least one new record: May 2015 is now the wettest month in state history, with over four days still to go.

Across Texas, the average rainfall in May has measured 7.54 inches, beating the June 2004 record of 6.66 inches, according to figures provided by the Office of the State Climatologist at Texas A&M University. The wettest region, located adjacent to Dallas-Fort Worth area, has received more than 20 inches of rain.

“It has been one continuous storm after another for the past week to 10 days in several regions of the state,” State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said in a statement. “It has rained so much that the ground just can’t soak any more moisture into it, and many creeks and rivers are above flood stage.”

The beginning of El Niño and the flow of wet air from the South have both contributed to the record downpour, according to Nielsen-Gammon. He predicted that the wet weather should change within the next few days.

In some parts of the state, rivers and reservoirs went from 20% to 100% capacity in the past month. Still, a drought remained in other parts of America’s largest contiguous state.

TIME space

Watch a Superfast Jet of Gas Burst from a Massive Black Hole

It's traveling at 98% the speed of light, from a galaxy 260 million light years away

If you thought the destructive laserlike beams from Star Wars’ Death Star were just a figment of George Lucas’s imagination, think again– beams of energy powerful enough to cross galaxies are real, and the Hubble Space Station just got a video of one.

You’re watching an extragalactic jet of gas traveling at 98% the speed of light, launched from a massive black hole that could weigh a billion times the mass of the sun. The gaseous stream formed by the magnetic fields of the enormous black hole looks almost like a laser, but photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope reveal that the jet is actually made of multiple globes of material strung together like pearls.

MORE: See The Trailer For TIME’s Unprecedented New Series: A Year In Space

When Eileen Meyer of the Space Telescope Science Institute put these images together into a time lapse, she discovered that each globe was rear-ending the one in front of it, creating a shock collision that further accelerates the particles into a beam of radiation, and causes them to brighten.

“Something like this has never been seen before in an extragalactic jet,” Meyer said in a statement. “This will allow us a very rare opportunity to see how the kinetic energy of the collision is dissipated into radiation.”

But this beam of radiation is coming from a host galaxy 260 million light-years away, which means we’re seeing it as it looked before the dinosaurs existed.

TIME space

Watch Ariane 5 Launch 2 Satellites Into Space

The communications satellites are expected to last about 15 years

Arianespace launched two communications satellites into orbit on Wednesday.

The DirecTV-15 satellite will provide broadcasts for the continental U.S., Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico, while the SKY México-1 satellite will provide HD broadcasts for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, according to a statement by Arianespace, the commercial satellite launch company pushing them into orbit.

MORE: See The Trailer For TIME’s Unprecedented Series: A Year In Space

Liftoff in French Guiana will occur seven seconds after the ignition of the main stage cryogenic engine, and the rocket will climb vertically for six seconds before turning East, according to SpaceFlightInsider. Both satellites are expected to last in space for approximately 15 years.

TIME Year in Space

Space: It Ain’t All Glamour

International space station

There's a lot of messy housekeeping when you're in orbit—and a lot of exciting work too

How did your pre-treated urine transfer rate work out this week? I’m sorry? You had no pre-treated urine transfer rate to worry about? Oh, then you must not be aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

It’s been a busy few days for the six crewmembers of the ISS—which pretty much describes all of their days. If there’s one point all astronauts mention about their time aloft, it’s the challenge of the schedule—the long, every-minute-accounted-for checklist of items that have to be completed every single day. Some of them are the glamour stuff of space travel—spacewalks, formation-flying with arriving vehicles, TV broadcasts to the folks back home. Some are a good deal more mundane, such as troubleshooting the stubbornly low flow rate in a system that is supposed to filter and recycle urine into ordinary drinking water.

Mission planners are not shy about revealing just how hard they make the astronauts work, as a glimpse at NASA’s ISS blog reveals. On May 22, the crew woke up to a list of 65 must-do items; three days later it was 67; the next day was a lighter day by comparison, with a scant 55.

A lot of what was done on those days was indeed very big stuff. On May 26, year-in-space marathoner Scott Kelly and crewmate Terry Virts oversaw the transfer of the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) from one berthing site to another on the station—which is both much more important and much more difficult than it sounds. For one thing, the module weighs 11 tons. And like most station modules, it’s roughly the size of a school bus.

Relocating it meant three control centers had to work in tandem: Mission Control in Houston; the Mobile Servicing Systems Operations Center in Quebec, Canada, which oversees the work of the station’s robotic arm; and the station itself, with Kelly and Virts in charge. The goal was to decouple the PMM from the Unity module and movie it to the nearby Tranquility module—by remote control, while moving 17,135 mph (27, 576 k/h), at an altitude of 259 mi. (417 km).

But it was worth the effort. By 2017, two new commercial crew vehicles built by Boeing and SpaceX will begin flying to the station, freeing the U.S. from its reliance on the Russian Soyuz as the only way to get astronauts to space. That required reconfiguring the station to open up the best docking ports to receive crew—and that meant the PMM had to find somewhere else to live.

A lot of the other work that went on in the past few days involved the extensive biomedical tests that Kelly, his fellow one-year flier Misha Kornienko, and the other astronauts regularly undergo to study the human body’s fitness for long-term space flight. Kelly and Kornienko went through their paces in what will be a year’s worth of fine-motor skill tests, tapping at touch screens to determine how their reaction time and dexterity change over the course of their stay.

Kelly and cosmonaut Gennady Padalka worked with ultrasound equipment to help study how fluid shifting from the lower body to the head affects the shape of the eyeball and the condition of the optic nerve, both of which are thought to cause long-lasting—and perhaps permanent—changes in the vision of astronauts who have spent extended time in zero-g.

Next week, Kelly will undergo similar testing while wearing a CHIBIS lower body negative pressure suit, which pulls fluid back down from the head and reduces the pressure that causes the damage. And, yes, a more colloquial description for a CHIBIS lower body negative pressure suit is rubber vacuum pants—but if your vision depended on them, you’d be happy to put them on too.

Other work on the station involved echocardiograms, with crewmembers serving sometimes as Crew Medical Officers (CMOs) and sometimes as patients as they performed the scans on one another; experiments on convection, fluid physics and the effects of the space environment on various materials subjected to long-term exposure outside the station; and maintenance work on extravehicular activity (EVA) suits in preparation for spacewalks soon to come.

None of the work is easy, some of it is monotonous, and all of it just keeps coming. On the other hand, you get to perform it while weightless, with a view outside the office window that is pretty hard to beat. As workplaces go, you could do a lot worse.

TIME weather

Forecasters Predict ‘Below Average’ 2015 Hurricane Season—But Threats Still Lurk

hurricane NOAA prediction 2015
Getty Images

'We always hope for the best and prepare for the worst'

Forecasters expect this year’s tropical storm season to be weaker than usual with zero to two major hurricanes predicted to affect the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Wednesday.

The announcement came days before the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season on June 1. Hurricane season typically lasts until the end of November.

Overall, the agency predicted 6 to 11 named storms with winds of 39 mph or greater and 3 to 6 hurricanes with wind speeds of 74 mph or greater. Despite the “below average” prediction, officials from NOAA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stressed that communities typically affected by hurricanes, particularly along the Gulf Coast, should still prepare for the worst.

“No matter how many pitches Mother Nature throws at us, from only a few to a whole lot, if just one of those pitches gets through the strike zone we can be in for a lot of trouble,” said NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan at a press conference. “Below average doesn’t mean no pitches get thrown our way.”

The El Niño weather phenomenon, which began this spring, is at least in part responsible for the suppression of storm activity, Sullivan said.El Niño tends to increase wind shear, the difference in wind speed and direction over a relatively short distance, which in turn subsequently slows down storm formation and growth.

In the NOAA press conference, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said that his city is better prepared to handle a major hurricane today than it was when the Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago as a Category 3 hurricane, killing more than 1,800 people—but he stressed that city residents should still prepare.It’s also important to remember that a storm doesn’t necessarily have to be powerful in order to wreck a lot of havoc. Superstorm Sandy wasn’t technically strong enough to be rated as a hurricane when it made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012—yet it caused north of $60 billion in damage because of its sheer size and because it squarely hit some richest, most populated coastal territory in the U.S. There’s no way to predict today where any hurricanes that may form in 2015 could make landfall—and location matters as much as strength.

“We always hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, but we’ve learned a lot of the path.”

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