Earthquake Myths: Separating Fact from Fiction


Earthquakes are natural disasters that have fascinated and terrified humans for centuries. These powerful geological events can cause significant destruction and loss of life, which has led to the emergence of numerous myths and misconceptions over time.  

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) continues to raise awareness for earthquake preparedness and education, and build resiliency so Californians are better prepared for, can respond to and recover from the destruction of earthquakes.  

However, there are still many common earthquake misconceptions that persist.  

Myth #1: Earthquakes Only Happen in Certain Parts of the World 

FALSE: One of the most common myths about earthquakes is that they only occur in specific regions of California. 

In reality, earthquakes can happen almost anywhere in the world. Earth’s crust is divided into tectonic plates, and movement can occur along the boundaries of these plates or within them. This means that regions far from plate boundaries, like the central United States, can experience earthquakes. It’s essential to recognize that no area is entirely immune to seismic activity. In California, the most notable fault is the San Andreas fault. In realty, several faults exist and can cause shaking anywhere. Depending on the size, shaking can be felt miles from the initial epicenter.  

Learn more about hazards in your area. 

Myth #2: Earthquakes Can Be Predicted with Precision 

FALSE: Many people believe that scientists can predict earthquakes with pinpoint accuracy, providing specific dates and times for when they will occur. Another common myth is that new technology exists to predict earthquakes. And finally, a popular myth is that animals can predict them.  

Unfortunately, earthquake prediction remains an extremely challenging endeavor. While scientists can monitor fault lines and detect patterns of seismic activity, they cannot predict exact earthquakes reliably. Instead, they focus on forecasting the probability of earthquakes over long periods, which helps with preparedness but does not provide precise predictions.  

Cal OES continues to encourage Californians to sign up for the Earthquake Early Warning system and local Wireless Emergency Alerts, which can send alerts to your mobile device for extra time to take protective action like drop, cover and hold on. However, the technology is NOT predictive. The further away you are from the earthquake epicenter, the more likely you are to receive an alert BEFORE shaking is felt. 

Myth #3: You Should Stand in a Doorway During an Earthquake 

FALSE: In the past, doorways were considered one of the strongest parts of a building’s structure, leading to the idea that they may offer greater protection from earthquakes. Experts have widely debunked the myth that standing in a doorway is the safest place to ride out an earthquake. Modern building codes and construction have significantly improved the structural integrity of all parts of buildings, meaning that doorways are no safer than other areas. 

The most important earthquake safety tip we can share is to simply “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” during an earthquake. This is the best way to protect yourself from hazards, such as objects that may fall off shelves and heavy items that may tumble down during earthquake shaking. 

Myth #4: Earthquake Weather Exists 

FALSE: Many cultures have long-held beliefs that certain weather conditions can predict earthquakes. Common signs include hot, dry or windy weather preceding an earthquake.  

There is no scientific evidence to support these claims. Earthquakes are caused by the movement of tectonic plates beneath the Earth’s surface, and weather patterns are not reliable indicators of impending seismic activity. 

Myth #5: Small Earthquakes Relieve Pressure and Prevent Larger Ones 

FALSE: It’s a common misconception that small earthquakes can release pressure along fault lines and prevent more significant earthquakes.  

While small earthquakes can indeed relieve some stress along a fault, they typically DO NOT significantly affect the likelihood of larger earthquakes. In fact, a sequence of smaller quakes can SOMETIMES indicate that a larger one is on the horizon, but not always. It’s essential to remember that earthquakes are unpredictable and can happen at any time or anywhere. Cal OES continues to focus on earthquake preparedness, response and recovery to build resiliency in communities statewide. 

Myth #6: Aftershocks are Always Less Destructive than the Initial Earthquake 

FALSE: A common myth is that aftershocks are less destructive than the primary seismic event.  

While most aftershocks may be smaller than the initial shaking, they are no less destructive than the first impact. For example, the 1994 Northridge earthquake was recorded at a 6.7 magnitude but had aftershocks of up 6.0 which caused additional damage to structures weakened by the initial impact. A similar misconception is that aftershocks occur directly after initial shaking, when they can occur weeks to months after. In 2022, the Ferndale earthquake struck in Humboldt County. A 5.4 magnitude aftershock occurred a couple of weeks later that also caused infrastructure damage to the surrounding areas.  

Plan, Prepare, Respond and Recover 

Understanding the truth about earthquakes is crucial for personal safety and preparedness. While these common earthquake myths may persist, it’s essential to rely on scientific knowledge and established earthquake safety guidelines. Also, by dispelling these myths and focusing on accurate information, individuals can better protect themselves and their communities during seismic events. Earthquakes are natural yet unpredictable. Cal OES continues to encourage all Californians to be prepared for, respond to and recover from earthquakes.  

When shaking starts:  

  • Drop, Cover, and Hold On.  
  • After the ground stops shaking, follow your evacuation plan.  
  • And don’t forget to grab your earthquake preparedness kit, including a go-bag, on your way out the door. 

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