When Superman and Batman finally team up for a movie, will Batman take Supes to task for allowing such widespread destruction in Metropolis? Will Superman counter with Batman allowing his city to be taken hostage for months while he was cured of a broken back with a rope in a dirty dungeon? These (and many other lingering questions) demand to be addressed.
Either way, movie fans know that Superman has faced some pretty huge threats over the years. From killer computers to the genetically engineered Nuclear Man, massive city-wide destruction has always been in the cards. In Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie, Lex Luthor stands to literally make a killing in the real estate market by wiping out the California coastline, transforming the tracks of worthless desert the new West Coast. His plan involved detonating a 500-megaton bomb in the San Adreas Fault, causing the unstable land to shift, resulting in everything to the west would “fall into the sea.”
This got us thinking (and worrying, since some of FSR’s best writers live on the West Coast): Could Lex Luthor, or some other super villain, cause part of California to fall into the ocean?
The Answer: No (But That Won’t Stop Earthquakes From Happening)
Earthquakes result from the movement of tectonic plates, which are essentially giant sheets of rock floating on magma. Plates and land masses come together at fault lines. When these plates move against each other, the friction causes vibrations in the Earth’s crust. The San Andreas Fault is responsible for the earthquakes felt in Southern California.
So why can’t Luthor use it for his dastardly deed? Because the San Andreas Fault is a strike-slip fault, which is characterized by two land masses moving horizontally past each other.
For Luthor’s plan to work, the fault would have to be a normal fault, in which land masses are moving away from each other. Even then, a bomb detonated in a normal fault would most likely not cause a mass of a continent to fall into the sea. Because land masses and tectonic plates essentially float on top of magma and move at an extremely slow pace (estimated to be only a few centimeters per year, or approximately how fast your fingernails grow), even the most powerful bomb would just cause a lot of damage.
In fact, the San Andreas Fault, while interesting to study, isn’t known for creating anything geologically spectacular. Normal faults can produce oceans over millions of years, and reverse faults (characterized by two land masses running into each other) build mountains. Aside from being a giant crack in the California desert, the San Andreas Fault just produces a lot of earthquakes.
So Don’t Book Your Vacation to Otisburg Just Yet
While Luthor’s plan would not result in a brand new coastline for California, the detonation of a 500-megaton bomb in the San Andreas Fault would likely be disastrous. It could trigger a massive earthquake and possibly wipe entire cities from existence, and Superman couldn’t simply fly into it and lift up some rocks to save everyone. Once the plates move against each other, the vibrations have occurred and aftershocks will result as the land masses settle back into place. In fact, Superman miraculously repairing the San Andreas Fault as he does in the film would likely cause even more earthquakes and damage.
Way to go, Supes.
Finally, About That Bomb…
Here’s the thing that people seem to miss about this whole plot element. Lex Luthor clearly states that his plan is to detonate a 500-megaton bomb. No one bats an eye at that, but in reality, that is one giant freaking bomb. It’s equivalent to 500,000,000 tons of TNT. That’s 40,000 times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It’s 10 times as powerful as the “Ivan,” the most violent bomb ever constructed by the Russians during the Cold War, which had a destructive radius of hundreds of kilometers. A 500-megaton bomb would release 20 times the surface energy released in the earthquake that caused the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.
This amount of explosive energy of this single bomb represents 10% of the entire global nuclear arsenal of all countries combined.
Detonating a bomb that size – inside or outside of the San Andreas Fault – would wreak havoc in southern California that even Superman couldn’t fix. Detonate it near a major city, and it would make Zod’s destruction of Metropolis look like Vancouver after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup in 2011. No one seems to be bothered that Lex Luthor, armed with a stylish toupee and Valerie Perrine’s glorious breasts, managed to hijack such a destructive weapon.
And the military had two of those things in Superman: The Movie. What the hell, movie? What. The. Hell?