Okay, so we’re a little behind on the summer blockbusters, but who doesn’t love a good end of the world, natural disaster movie? From our perspective, San Andreas is one of the greatest cinematic experiences of the year (took us back to the good ol’ days of The Day After Tomorrow). It’s filled with action, special effects, and fairly accurate geographic renderings. Then there’s The Rock and he saves the day… well, at least his own family. But from a STEM geek perspective there are a few impossibilities that we just couldn’t stop thinking about.
1. The “Tip the Hat” Maneuver Doesn’t Exist (and Would Definitely Kill You)
In the opening scene of the film, a teenage girl dramatically plunges off a cliff in San Fernando Valley. The car sticks precariously on the side of the cliff, and the star of the movie, Ray (played by Dwayne Johnson), brings his helicopter crew in to save her. During the rescue, he performs a maneuver he calls, “tip the hat” in which he turns the helicopter sideways and wedges it in between the walls of the cliff, with mere inches of clearance. An experienced chopper pilot would die laughing at how this scene defies a number of physical laws, but it’s actually pretty cool to watch if you don’t know it’s scientifically impossible.
2. Hovering a Helicopter Over a Car on a Cliff is a Great Way to Send it Careening to the Bottom
Okay, let’s overlook the fact that the helicopter maneuvers in this scene aren’t exactly possible. Is it really advisable to send a helicopter, generating wind speeds similar to that of a hurricane, directly over a teenager in a car hanging on by a thread in a cliff?
3. Would a Trained Rescue Worker Really Take Off With a Rescue Chopper to Save His Own Family?
Ray was supposed to have conducted hundreds of successful rescue missions, many in war conditions in the Middle East. Is it really believable that such a trained and disciplined pilot would abandon his home city and team to conduct a rogue rescue of his own family in equipment owned by the city?
4. What are the Chances a Scientist Will Learn to Predict a Major Quake Precisely 30 Seconds Before the World’s Largest One?
The ability to one day predict a quake in time to issue alerts isn’t so implausible. Scientists around the world have worked toward this goal for decades. What is unlikely is that one of them will finally figure it out just 30 seconds before the worst earthquake outbreak in the history of humanity.
5. At One Point, the New Prediction Model Predicted a Quake Seconds Before it Happened – Later He Foretold a Quake Hours Before it Occurred
At the beginning of the movie, Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) predicted the Hoover Dam quake in Nevada just seconds before it occurred. He was unable to escape. Later, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) used the exact same prediction model to give the residents of San Francisco hours of notice in order to evacuate the city. Keep it straight, Hollywood!
6. If Cell Towers are Out, What are the Chances Telephone Wires Endured?
Ray’s daughter is a smart young lady, and leads a couple of her newly-made friends to an electronics shop in search of a landline phone when the cell phones are rendered useless. But what are the chances that the landlines between San Francisco and Los Angeles survived when all the cell towers were knocked out — especially considering the earth opened a 50-plus-foot gap in between those points? Note: if two magnitude 9-plus earthquakes hit the California coast, you can pretty much forget about making any calls out there for awhile.
7. The Fact-Checkers Got Some of the Historical Data on Earthquakes Wrong
For history and natural disaster buffs, it’s interesting to note that the largest earthquake in North America was indeed in Alaska. It was actually a 9.2 that struck the region of Prince William Sound in 1964. It was followed by a tsunami, but actually caused far less loss of life and property than many other lesser-magnitude quakes. Only 130 people died, partially due to the Good Friday holiday, which kept many workers and children at home and away from the most devastated areas.
The highest magnitude earthquake recorded in history was a 9.5 in Valdivia, Chile in 1960. Killing 1,655 people and injuring another 3,000, it drove over 2 million people into homelessness. The tsunami that ensued killed people as far away from the epicenter as Japan, the Philippines, and Hawaii. Yet a 9.6 as depicted in the movie in as populated a region as the California coast, followed by a tsunami, would likely kill millions and leave millions more injured and homeless.