— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) June 22, 2017
Scores of people around the world received reports on their email accounts and Twitter feeds Wednesday, alerting them to a powerful earthquake with a magnitude potentially capable of causing buildings to crumble.
A 6.8-magnitude earthquake reportedly hit the Pacific Ocean about 10 miles from Santa Barbara, Calif., the U.S. Geological Survey alert stated.
A minute after the alert, at 4:52 p.m. Pacific time, the Los Angeles Times automatically published a story to its website — and a tweet to its account — alerting readers to the report of the earthquake.
The alert sent droves of reporters and others in California and beyond searching for information about the quake. Surely millions of people would have felt a tremor of that magnitude. But why was no one tweeting about it?
Struggling to find any information on the USGS site or elsewhere online, people wondered, did anyone feel it?
“Obviously no one felt it,” Justin Pressfield, a USGS spokesman, told The Washington Post. “Because it didn’t happen.”
The report, it turns out, was a false alarm.
Indeed, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake once struck near Santa Barbara — in 1925.
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology mistakenly triggered the notification while working to correct the exact location of an earthquake that took place near Santa Barbara on June 29, 1925, the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times later reported.
Some scientists had recently noted that the tremor’s location was actually six miles from where it was initially reported, Pressfield said, adding that the USGS partners with numerous universities to compile its historic earthquake database.
So in the process of making the necessary corrections to the earthquake’s records, someone on the university’s research team accidentally triggered an email from the USGS email server, a California Institute of Technology spokesman told the Los Angeles Times.
Even more confusing, those who took a closer look at the alert would have noticed that the subject line of the USGS email included a date of June 29, 2025.
That alert, in turn, automatically generated a story on the Los Angeles Times website through an algorithm called Quakebot, which generates articles about earthquakes based on USGS notifications, the Los Angeles Times tweeted.
We have an algorithm (Quakebot) that automatically writes stories about earthquakes based on USGS alerts. The USGS alert was incorrect.
— L.A. Times: L.A. Now (@LANow) June 22, 2017
Shortly after the alert sent out, the USGS announced on Twitter that it was a false alarm. Within a half-hour, a more detailed statement appeared on its website clarifying the software issue. And about an hour after the initial alert was emailed to USGS subscribers, a second email was sent out correcting the false information.
The Los Angeles Times also tweeted a correction to their initial story. Which in turn welcomed a plethora of Twitter jokes.
Back in 1925 we were all on 56k dialup, and tweets were slow to process.
— InsideHoops.com NBA (@InsideHoops) June 22, 2017
Unfortunately, some mistakes are of larger magnitude than others
— Elias Saadeh (@CarneASaadeh) June 22, 2017
The definition of fake news is changing a lot these days
— Wolf (@lobowski) June 22, 2017
A software glitch turned an update of the magnitude of 1925 Santa Barbara quake M6.8 into a 2025 quake. New method for predicting quakes?
— Dr. Lucy Jones (@DrLucyJones) June 22, 2017
“We’re still trying to figure out how that happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Pressfield said. He added that while occasionally the USGS will report erroneous preliminary information about seismic activity, he could not recall an error like this happening during his time with the government agency.
A disclaimer on the agency’s website even states that earthquake information delivered through the notification service is preliminary and does not imply an impending threat.
The false alarm, “in my mind exemplifies some of the problems” with automated technology. But one of the beauties of technology, Pressfield said, is that “people can easily then go online and double check it.”
“Technology in this case had a hiccup,” Pressfield said. “But the advancement of technology is still fantastic for earthquake purposes.”
A similar false alert was sent out by Japan’s meteorological agency in August of last year, telling people a massive, 9.1-magnitude quake struck the Tokyo area. The agency canceled the alert seconds later, but not before at least one smartphone app disseminated the information, sending people into a panic and even disrupting certain train services.
Santa Barbara has suffered numerous serious earthquakes through the decades, and there are several faults that cross through the area. As a 2003 article in the Santa Barbara Independent stated, the 1925 temblor is among the best known, and one of the earthquakes that caused the most damage in the region. Thirteen people died as a result of the quake and several buildings were leveled, according to the Associated Press.
An archived article in the Los Angeles Times described how the “severe temblor,” on June 29, 1925, “demolished or seriously damaged virtually all brick concrete and stone structures in the city” and forced Santa Barbara’s 30,000 residents at the time to sleep on the city’s lawns, in public parks and on the beach.
Three structures near the waterfront were burned, and a famous hotel was “virtually wrecked.” Pavements along the water were ripped apart “as though from the force of an explosion.”
“The terror and panic,” the article stated, “gripped the city when the first temblor brought buildings crashing to earth and threw many sleeping men, women and children from their beds.”
More from Morning Mix