Lucy Jones didn’t feel the 7.1 earthquake but helped the world understand it

Seismologist Lucy Jones talks about the recent earthquakes near Ridgecrest, Calif.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

On Friday night, Lucy Jones didn’t feel the earthquake.

She and her husband, Egill Hauksson — both seismologists, and both exhausted — were on an evening walk to their Pasadena pharmacy to pick up prescriptions that had gone uncollected when a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck Ridgecrest, Calif., the day before.

Jones, the hottest L.A. celebrity of the holiday weekend, needed a break from all the attention. She’d practiced her bass viola and done her best to scrub off her television makeup from the day’s NBC and ABC interviews. (Her husband joked that the smudged mascara left her looking like a football player.)

But during the stroll, her cellphone rang. It was news about a second, stronger earthquake: a magnitude 7.1 — but with a seismic intensity low enough that it could be felt in Pasadena only if one was standing still. The pair hustled the last six blocks home to pick up phones and computers, then jumped into the car. They were in the Caltech lab within 15 minutes of the tremors.


“We can’t set up earthquake experiments at our leisure. We have to take what the earth gives us,” she said. “Data collection was first on my list. Future seismologists were depending on us.”

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Jones, a self-proclaimed introvert whose Twitter followers have quadrupled in three days, is an expert on the “Big One.” After two major earthquakes and a number of unnerving aftershocks, she is not merely a scientist but, to some, something of a fortune-teller, tasked with predicting the future of activity beneath Earth’s surface.

L.A. County officials, first responders and everyday residents recognize that knowledge equals power. And they can’t get enough of Jones.

“The mysteries behind earthquakes are what makes them so terrifying,” said Janice Hahn, an L.A. County supervisor. “She always seems to have the answers.”

Jones can measure how fast faults are moving and approximately how many earthquakes we’ll have over the next century. Those calculations are easy, she said. But the data that most L.A. residents are yearning for — what to expect the next decade — is unknowable; it will be a random subset.


“Some people think these quakes indicate a worse one coming; other believe this event relieved the stress in the earth and staved the Big One off,” she said. “But both of those ideas are simply a search for a pattern in what is truly a random distribution.”

Full coverage: 2nd major quake in two days hits Southern California »

The epicenter of the week’s events in Ridgecrest was more than 100 miles from most L.A. County residents. So what she can predict is that, when an earthquake with a similar magnitude strikes closer to L.A., the devastation will be much more drastic.

Seismologists Robert Graves and Lucy Jones address a news conference at Caltech.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“This size earthquake on the Baldwin Hills, or Hollywood fault, or Santa Monica, or Palos Verdes — notice, we have quite a few options — we won’t just have 20,000 people living nearby. It will be a couple million,” she said.

Jones was the center of attention at a news conference Sunday featuring eight speakers, at which county officials discussed the best practices for earthquake preparation. One by one, they debunked outdated advice, such as bracing in a door frame or running outside, where flying debris from houses is often most harmful.

“We’ve become complacent since 1994,” said Hahn, who said she grew up with a hard helmet and tennis shoes beneath her bed. “First responders are, I have no doubt, prepared. What I’m worried about is that our residents in L.A. County are not prepared themselves.”

But Jones had a different perspective.

“A go-bag? Where are you going to go?” Jones asked in a separate interview. “I work with structural engineers and policy people to figure out how to keep the pieces together, not put them back together after they break.”

Jones has been called the Beyoncé of earthquakes and has been the answer to questions on “Jeopardy!” But she has also long been the seismologist-next-door for L.A. residents. During the premiere of the earthquake thriller “San Andreas,” she tweeted live commentary about the faults in its scientific accuracy.

Jones said seismology has changed both technically and culturally since she began working in the 1970s. Earthquake measurements that took a full week now take less than 45 minutes. And more women are researching, publishing and speaking out.

“Scientific culture was driven by toxic masculinity. As I watched #MeToo go by, I remembered the uncomfortable comments, the jokes I heard during my pregnancy,” she said. “We didn’t think we had a choice. Things are changing.”

When the aftershocks of the latest earthquake subside, Jones plans to continue her work helping the county plan for the unpredictable.

“I can’t believe Lucy Jones didn’t feel the earthquake,” Hahn said at the news conference, joking that Jones could sense whenever a corner of the earth shifted.

“If that were the case,” Jones replied, “I’d never get any exercise.”