ABSTRACT

Communicating probabilities of natural hazards to varied audiences is a notoriously difficult task. Many of these challenges were encountered during the 2016 Bombay Beach, California, swarm of ~100 2M4.3 earthquakes, which began on 26 September 2016 and lasted for several days. The swarm’s proximity to the southern end of the San Andreas fault caused concern that a larger earthquake could be triggered. Within 1–2 days, different forecast models were used to evaluate the likelihood of a larger event with two agencies (the U.S. Geological Survey [USGS] and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services) releasing probabilities and forecasts for larger earthquakes. Our research explores communication and news media efforts, as well as how people on a microblogging social media site (Twitter) responded to these forecasts. Our findings suggest that news media used a combination of information sources, basing their articles on what they learned from social media, as well as using information provided by government agencies. As the swarm slowed down, there is evidence of the continued interplay between news media and social media, with the USGS issuing revised probability reports and scientists from the USGS and other institutions participating in media interviews. In reporting on the swarm, news media often used language more generally than the scientists; terms such as probability, likelihood, chance, and possibility were used interchangeably. Knowledge of how news media used scientific information from the 2016 Bombay Beach forecasts can assist local, state, and federal agencies in developing effective communication strategies to respond to future earthquakes.

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