Earthquake in San Francisco

Prepare to be moved!  Earthquake, a major new exhibit and planetarium show at the California Academy of Sciences takes visitors on a kinetic journey toward understanding these super seismic phenomena and how they fit into the larger story of our ever-changing Earth. 

Occupying the entire west hall of the Academy, the exhibit features a number of large-scale installations, including a walk-through model of the Earth, an enclosure for live baby ostriches (yes, there are surprising connections between earthquakes and ostriches!), an earthquake simulator resembling an old Victorian home, and an interactive space designed to teach earthquake preparedness. Concurrently, a new planetarium show launches audiences on a breathtaking tour through space and time—flying over the San Andreas fault before diving into the planet’s interior, traveling back in time to witness both the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the break-up of Pangaea 200 million years ago, and much more.

“San Francisco—and California too—are no strangers to the awesome power of earthquakes,” says Dr. Greg Farrington, Executive Director of the Academy.  “By showing visitors the science that underlies these natural events, we want to encourage preparedness and help visitors understand how the great movements of the continents have produced the landscape we call home today and the life around us.” 


The 8,000-square-foot Earthquake exhibit is located next to the Rainforest dome and continues the new Academy’s tradition of light-filled, airy exhibit spaces integrated with live animals and public programs.  The exhibit will run for several years.

Walk-through Earth

Entry into the Earthquake exhibit is through a dramatic, 25-foot-diameter model of the Earth.  Venturing through an oversized crack in the planet’s crust, visitors find touchable geology specimens and interactive stations explaining the basics of plate tectonics.  Activity deep inside the planet drives the motion of tectonic plates on the Earth’s surface, resulting in the earthquakes we feel and the continental movements that happen more slowly—over millions of years. 

 How Land Shapes Life

The break-up of the supercontinent Pangaea roughly 200 million years ago resulted in two large landmasses: Laurasia (present-day northern continents) and Gondwana (present-day southern continents).  The second section of the Earthquake exhibit focuses on the diverse life forms that evolved and spread out across Gondwana, showing visitors that the same earth processes that cause destructive earthquakes in the human timescale can also provide constructive conditions for life in the geological timescale.

Live ostriches, ancient fossils, plants, and mounted marsupials (mammals with pouches) illustrate the shared legacy of India, Antarctica, Australia, South America, and Africa, which were once joined together.  For example, the iconic ostriches of Africa are large flightless birds in the ratite lineage, whose closest relatives live in South America and Australia. Like many other African animals, these birds may never have evolved if Africa hadn’t broken off from Gondwana and drifted away. To tell this story, live ostrich chicks will be on display in the exhibit until late 2012.

 Earthquake Simulator

Following a brief pre-show, visitors enter an earthquake simulator designed to look like an old Victorian home in San Francisco.  Inside, simulated views of the downtown skyline and sounds of the World Series baseball game transport guests back to 5:04 pm on October 17, 1989—the date and time of the infamous Loma Prieta earthquake.  A sudden sustained tremor, followed by a brief aftershock, gives visitors a sense of what this ground-jolting event felt like.

But the experience doesn’t end there—the views of downtown darken and change, and the sounds of the radio give way to a rooster crow and the clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage.  For a second simulation, guests travel farther back in time, to 5:12 am on April 18, 1906, the date of the most devastating earthquake in San Francisco’s history.  About 32 times stronger than Loma Prieta, this event brought the “Paris of America” to its knees, and the ensuing fire destroyed thousands of buildings, including the original Academy home on Market Street.

Earthquake Preparedness

What should you do before, during, and after an earthquake?  The final section of the exhibit addresses these questions through hands-on activities.  Visitors can identify crucial items for home preparedness kits, such as food, water, and hand-crank radios, participate in an impromptu earthquake drill, and learn what to do after an earthquake (for example, checking for hazards and turning off the gas meter).  This section also includes a resource station offering additional preparedness advice from partner organizations.

Photos courtesy of  The California Academy of Sciences

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