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Waiting for “The Big One”

Question: Will “The Big One” ever hit California, and if so, when?

Arthur Lerner-Lam:  Yeah.  You know, we do talk about things like The Big One, when it will occur, how big it will be, what the impact will be.  You know a curious thing by the way, is that we are getting better at predicting the impact of an earthquake than we are at actually predicting an earthquake.  Once we know… Once we have a scenario earthquake, for example, of a certain size, a certain location, our computer modeling really is very good, so we can actually with a computer generate the possible ground motion from a scenario earthquake.  We know how buildings interact with the ground and what will cause a building to fall down.  We even have reasonable estimates of the casualties that might arise and the economic damage as well, so we’re getting very good at predicting the damage and we’ve constructed such a scenario for California, and the reason for that is that over the next few decades, 30 to 50 years, the chance of having a major earthquake in California is pretty close to 1, pretty close to unity.  In some sense it’s really safe for a seismologist to say that because earthquakes happen.  Almost certainly a large earthquake is going to happen in California, so you know I’m not sticking my neck out by saying there is a good chance of an earthquake happening, but the question is how… where it will be and how big it will be and that we base on trenching.  We base it on very fine measurements of the crust moving.  We have better calibrated models of the faults and the frictions on the faults and so we’re coming up with sort of a community understanding of what the big one might be. 

The US Geological Survey, an academic consortium called the Southern California Earthquake Center, which actually involves seismologists from all over the US, if not the globe, have come together with a consensus statement, the California Rupture Forecast as it were; and the two areas that are potentially very dangerous are a repeat of a major earthquake along the southern San Andreas, east of Los Angeles, but still close enough to do considerable damage to Los Angeles, and of course in the Inland Empire east, basically along I-10 and going down toward Palm Springs there is a good chance of significant damage and significant casualties there.  The second area is up in the East Bay, not a repeat of the 1906 earthquake, which is on the… which was on the San Francisco Peninsula, but in the East Bay along something called the Hayward fault, really part of the San Andreas system, but a separate fault.  That’s the fault that locally you may remember sort of runs right through the Berkeley football stadium, the hills above Berkeley and so on.  So you know Cal might have difficulty fielding a football team if that earthquake occurs, but our predictions of damage there are pretty severe as well, but again, you know knowledge of what might happen and particularly the damage that might happen goes a great way to providing the political will and in fact, the funding to do something about it.  You can’t stop it.  You can’t stop an earthquake, but you can build strong buildings.  You can prepare the population.  You can make people aware of what they might do when they feel an earthquake and there are other steps we can take as well.  You know we can’t predict. 

We’re getting better at forecasting, but there is also something interesting called the Earthquake Early Warning Systems and this is something that has taken awhile to develop, but when you think about it is kind of obvious and when we you start with the following analogy earthquake waves, an earthquake occurs.  It generates ground motion.  That ground motion leaves the earthquake zone, the rupture zone in a series of waves and there are several types of waves and they all move at different speeds.  We’ve you know some of our students that these are primary, secondary surface waves and so on and the primary waves are fast. The secondary waves are slower and the surface waves are slower still.  What is interesting about that progression is that the primary waves though fast aren’t very large.  The secondary waves are slower, but larger and the surface waves slower still are larger still and so it’s the large waves that do most of the damage, so the theory is that if you could detect that little bit of a P-wave coming along.  It’s not going to do a lot of damage, but it might give you enough time ranging from a few seconds, few tens of seconds to maybe even close to a minute or so or more.  It might give you enough time to do the sort of things that would save people, save structures.  You could stop trains.  You could shut off gas.  You could get people to find safe haven inside the buildings for example.  If you could do that that would constitute a pretty decent early warning system and so there are experiments on trying to do that.  It’s been implemented in Japan.  It’s been implemented in Taiwan and there are other countries around trying to investigate these systems.

The chances of "The Big One" hitting California in the next few decades is near 100%. The only questions are—how big, and when?

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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