An earthquake of unparalleled enormity causes mayhem and destruction up and down the West Coast, toppling Seattle's Space Needle, ripping apart San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and severing the western edge of the country from the mainland.
That's the premise of a four-hour miniseries called "10.5" -- featuring a fictional University of Washington seismologist as a central character -- that NBC has scheduled for May 2 and 3.
But this is one time when fiction is stranger than truth. Real UW earthquake experts say the production appears to have very little in common with reality.
"This isn't science fiction. It's just fiction," said Bill Steele, coordinator of the UW seismology laboratory, one of the key settings for the miniseries. "People who are inclined to watch this program should do so for the entertainment value and not expect to see a lot of reality about earthquakes on the West Coast -- or anywhere for that matter."
Local, state and federal agencies engaged in disaster preparedness are telling people that what they can expect in a disaster is far different from what is portrayed. The agencies hope the program will spur discussion to help people better prepare for when an earthquake does strike.
But an earthquake with anything approaching a 10.5 magnitude is highly unlikely. The most-powerful earthquakes ever recorded were a magnitude 9.5 temblor off the coast of Chile in 1960 and a 9.2 jolt in Alaska in 1964. The biggest-known earthquake in the Pacific Northwest happened more than 300 years ago in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, on the ocean floor just off the Pacific Coast from British Columbia to northern California. Recent evidence has set the magnitude at about 9.0.
"We don't know of any beyond a 9.5. To go from a 9.5 to a 10.5 would mean the energy released would increase by a factor of about 35," said J. Michael Brown, chairman of the UW Earth and Space Sciences Department, home to the seismology lab.
In the miniseries, filmed in British Columbia, the catastrophic earthquake involves a supposed fault more than 700 kilometers, or 435 miles, beneath the central Washington town of Ellensburg. That fault supposedly interacts with other faults.
"I could write a science fiction story about seismic events from geologic processes at 700 kilometers deep, but it isn't like shallow faults," Brown said. "At that depth, the pressure is just too great for the fault to slip."
The boundary between the Earth's upper and lower mantle is actually about 670 kilometers deep, he said, and geoscientists are still trying to understand precisely how earthquakes happen at that depth. The largest such event in recent times was an 8.2 earthquake nearly 700 kilometers beneath Bolivia in 1994, an event that was felt at many North American locations, including Minneapolis, Chicago, Toronto and Renton, Wash.
"There have been others at that depth, but they don't cause much surface damage because the surface is a long ways away from the earthquake source," Brown said. "There are deep quakes, and they can be large, but they are completely different from the earthquakes that occur in the crust and the upper mantle, and we've never seen the two tied together."
To produce a 10.5 earthquake, a fault such as the San Andreas would have to slip along a line that nearly circles the globe, Brown said. The distance could be reduced only if the fault slips far more than it ever has, he said.
Howard Braunstein, executive producer of "10.5," was recently quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying that the miniseries is meant to be "fun entertainment," and acknowledging that it plays loose with science. The Times quoted him as saying that those behind the project hadn't consulted scientists but rather, "We went on the Internet for backup research."
At one point in the film, UW scientists appear to wonder whether they should share speculation and "evidence" for an earthquake 700-plus kilometers deep with their colleagues at the United States Geological Survey. In reality, USGS earthquake scientists have offices at the UW and routinely work alongside university scientists in the seismology lab.
The miniseries also portrays efforts to stop the cataclysmic quake with nuclear explosions.
"You could imagine that a nuclear device would be the straw that breaks the camel's back, adding pressure to the fault zone and starting an earthquake," Brown said. "But I don't know how a nuclear device would do the opposite, reduce internal stresses in the fault zone.
"There's no basis for using a nuclear device to stop an earthquake."
For more information, contact Brown at (206) 616-6058 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or Steele at (206) 685-2255 or email@example.com
For more information about the science of earthquakes and the history of Northwest seismic events, see http://www.pnsn.org
For more information on earthquake preparedness, see
For emergency preparedness information from local emergency management agencies, see
For the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program, see http://earthquake.usgs.gov
Additional experts on the science of earthquakes:
Craig Weaver, USGS at the UW, (206) 553-0627, firstname.lastname@example.org
Stephen Malone, UW Earth and Space Sciences, (206) 685-3811, email@example.com
Thomas Yelin, USGS at the UW, (206) 553-1937, firstname.lastname@example.org
Anthony Qamar, UW Earth and Space Sciences, Washington state seismologist, (206) 685-7563, email@example.com
Thomas L. Pratt, USGS at UW School of Oceanography, (206) 543-7358, firstname.lastname@example.org
Derek Booth, UW Civil Engineering, (206) 543-7923, email@example.com
Kathy Troost, UW Earth and Space Sciences, (206) 616-9769, firstname.lastname@example.org