As earthquakes continue to shake Berkeley and residents become increasingly anxious, fears have been intensified by several unverified predictions of an imminent major quake that have been circulating online.
Over the last few days, Quakeprediction.com site owner Luke Thomas, who is not associated with the U.S. Geological Survey, has been posting predictions — which he said in an email are based on kinetic frictional heating, the seismic gap theory and electromagnetic radiation — on his website and Twitter account, claiming that an earthquake of at least magnitude 5.0 will likely hit in the Berkeley, Mill Valley and San Carlos area by around 11 a.m. Tuesday.
Though it is unclear whether Thomas has any credentials in seismology or related fields, his predictions have elicited a strong reaction in the Berkeley community.
“I don’t feel very prepared,” said UC Berkeley sophomore Rachel Thurman. “(The warnings) make me nervous, and I think not many people would know what to do in a natural disaster or emergency situation.”
Thomas’s tweets about his predictions have been retweeted by hundreds of people in the past week.
To add to the hysteria, San Francisco State University Professor Genie Stowers sent an email Friday claiming that Berkeley City Hall had been briefed by U.S.G.S. geologists on a possible magnitude-6.0 quake in the next two to three weeks. According to city officials who said they heard nothing of the sort, the information in the email — which has since gone viral — was false.
“There has been no briefing of the City Council or staff on when the next earthquake is going to be,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington.
Deputy City Manager Christine Daniel sent an email to community members Monday to dispel the rumors, as alarmed residents have been making phone calls and sending emails to their council members. The misinformation was discovered to be an exaggeration on the part of Stowers, who said in a follow-up email Monday that her only intent was to pass on a message about the importance of being prepared.
“Modern technology is really fast at spreading news, and an explosive story that a major earthquake is going to happen in the next couple of weeks is really scary and alarming to people,” Worthington said.
David Schwartz, senior earthquake geologist at U.S.G.S., encouraged people to be prepared but warned against the danger of making exaggerated assumptions.
“Anyone has the ability to go online and make some prediction,” he said, calling the recent online rumors largely baseless.
Access to the Internet has increased the ease of spreading information but made it harder to know whether that information is reliable, according to Peggy Hellweg, associate research seismologist and operations manager at the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. Hellweg said there is no definite way to predict earthquakes.
“Yes, the probability that there will be an earthquake along the (Hayward) fault is pretty big,” she said. “But in all likelihood, it will be small.”
Nonetheless, in light of these unverified predictions coupled with the recent series of earthquakes in Berkeley, residents are still preparing themselves for the possibility of the “Big One.”
At the REI store in West Berkeley, sales for emergency supplies have risen since Oct. 20, when a magnitude-4.0 quake hit Berkeley, according to head cashier Doug Morse.
“People are buying propane gas, dehydrated camping foods that’ll last a while, emergency blankets that insulate you from the elements,” Morse said. “They’re buying basic supplies like food and shelter, emergency radios and hand-cranked flashlights that don’t require batteries.”
He added that large water containers, first aid supplies and emergency kits — premade bundles of food and basic necessities — have been increasingly popular.
“Whenever there’s a jolt like the big 4.0 one that we had, we have a big increase in sales the day after,” Morse said. “Everyone comes in. It happens all the time.”