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.

Families will find that the show is kid-friendly, as it includes numerous interactive displays aimed at children. "It was designed to be entertaining as well as educational. . . . It's fitting in a lot of information in a theatrical way," says Birch director Nigella Hillgarth. The aquarium consulted teachers so that the exhibit centers on facts but downplays the frightful--hence, a photo of a car hanging from a broken freeway was not included.

Children as young as 3 years of age can navigate the show. I saw preschoolers construct buildings with foam blocks, then try to destroy them. Others rearranged a giant foam floor puzzle of tectonic plates, and some pulled a giant Slinky to simulate the motion of "S" waves, which move side to side.

The hands-down favorite activity for the young (and old, for that matter): "Can You Register on the Richter?" The word "JUMP!" in big letters on a rug invites visitors to make their own earthquake, which is recorded by a seismometer. And, yes, 130 pounds registers.

Nothing stresses the unpredictability of earthquakes -- and their dire consequences -- more than the hypnotic "magic planet," a globe that dramatically reminds visitors of Earth's restless nature. Using data from seismic monitor sensors and satellites operated by Scripps, a projector displays moving images on the inside of the globe to simulate what happened to the planet's crust and inner core on Dec. 26. It shows how Earth's tectonic plates shifted, lifting the ocean, then settled into new positions.

Scripps receives seismic data from more than 1,000 stations worldwide in real-time imagery by satellite--something that couldn't be done even five years ago. And only in the past 30 years have scientists discovered that earthquakes happen much more frequently than people imagined. Scripps sometimes coordinates research with other institutions and organizations, such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But for all the advances in monitoring activity within Earth, there is still the element of surprise. Says John Orcutt, deputy director of research at Scripps, "You just can't predict earthquakes at this stage, and it may never be possible."

-- Sue Kovach Shuman

"Earthquake! Life on a Restless Planet" runs through Oct. 31 at the Birch Aquarium (2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, Calif.). Admission is $10 adults, $6.50 ages 3-17, free for 2 and under. Details: 858-534-FISH (3474) ,

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