In La Jolla, Calif., Shake and Quake

Sunday, May 1, 2005

WHAT: "Earthquake! Life on a Restless Planet," an exhibit that demystifies a powerful force of nature.

WHERE: Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, Calif.

WHY GO: You're in earthquake country, so see what's shakin'.

I'm standing on a seaside mesa a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by earthquake faults -- the San Jacinto, Elsinore and San Andreas, the San Clemente offshore and several south in Baja California. In the past 24 hours, seismic activity has been recorded in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park -- 1:05 magnitude, 11.2 miles deep -- about two hours away in eastern San Diego County. Days before, seismic activity was detected east of Riverside, in the mountains.

That's not at all unusual in California, where thousands of temblors are recorded each year -- so many, in fact, that April was Earthquake Preparedness Month. "Earthquake!" at the Birch Aquarium, part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, digs deeper than similar exhibits and urges visitors to explore the geologic phenomenon on their own terms.

Scripps scientists operate the Pinon Flat Observatory in the California desert; it's the world's most advanced facility for monitoring changes in the Earth's crust. Other Scripps experts study the oceans, which cover about 75 percent of Earth, and everything affecting them. The planet's surface layer, much of it under oceans, is broken into rigid slabs known as tectonic plates. These move and collide, slowly but steadily. When edges of the plates interact, expect an earthquake. That's what caused the Dec. 26 tsunami in South Asia.

The current Birch exhibit explains in layman's terms the science behind the phenomenon, with hands-on activities such as the Earthquake Update Center. A computer screen near the entrance urges visitors to "Check here for the latest tremors," recorded by Scripps's seismometers. Click a button and the screen displays red dots for those detected within the past 24 hours; yellow, 24 to 48 hours ago; and green, the past two weeks.

Elsewhere, the show features two six-minute films that focus on the institute's research. "Waves Through the Earth" shows scientists installing seismic monitoring equipment at some of the stations it operates around the globe, while "Earthquakes in the Holy Land" focuses on a fault that passes through the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee.

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