Whoa. Did you all see Kathryn Schulz’s article in The New Yorker: “The Really Big One”?
It’s an extremely well-written — indeed, captivating — article about an earthquake zone I’d never heard of, north of the San Andreas fault, where the continental plate is hung up on the oceanic plate and being held back and compressed.
The last very big earthquake appears to have hit that region in the year 1700 AD. Here’s what’s expected when the next big one — for which we appear overdue — hits:
When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries. Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater. … The water will surge upward into a huge hill, then promptly collapse. One side will rush west, toward Japan. The other side will rush east, in a seven-hundred-mile liquid wall that will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthquake begins. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” In the Pacific Northwest, everything west of Interstate 5 covers some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people.
I mean, wow. Now I know how I would start a disaster or postapocalyptic novel, if I were writing one.
A grown man is knocked over by ankle-deep water moving at 6.7 miles an hour. The tsunami will be moving more than twice that fast when it arrives. Its height will vary with the contours of the coast, from twenty feet to more than a hundred feet. It will not look like a Hokusai-style wave, rising up from the surface of the sea and breaking from above. It will look like the whole ocean, elevated, overtaking land. Nor will it be made only of water—not once it reaches the shore. It will be a five-story deluge of pickup trucks and doorframes and cinder blocks and fishing boats and utility poles and everything else that once constituted the coastal towns of the Pacific Northwest.
Unbelievable. Or rather, unthinkable. Or unfortunately, everyone in that region appears to be treating the possibility as both unthinkable and unbelievable, because nothing much is being done to help anybody survive this disaster when it does occur. Which it will; it has to; you can’t block an entire continental plate forever; eventually it’ll have to straighten out. Boom. Tomorrow or in a hundred years, who knows, but if the plate’s already been hung up this long, well, it’s definitely under a lot of pressure.
Of course the whole region was developed before anybody even knew about the fault or how it works. But we’ve known about it for a couple of decades now, and no one has even troubled to put in an early warning system — the kind that Japan has — the kind that would let authorities shut down power stations and warn hospitals and so on.
Anyway, yeah, okay, now I’m happier at being practically on top of the New Madrid fault. At least if this one lets go, we won’t get a tsunami. If I lived in Seattle, well, honestly, after this article, I’m just glad I *don’t* live in Seattle. Any of you all who *do* live in the Pacific Northwest, well . . .