When that tsunami is coming, you run…You protect yourself, you don’t turn around, you don’t go back to save anybody. You run for your life. – Jay Wilson, quoted in “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz
Growing up in the Midwest, weather has always been on my mind. Thunderstorms, straight-line winds, tornadoes, blizzards, ice storms – I’ve spent a lot of time studying the radar, running to the basement, and picking up fallen tree limbs.
Moving to the Pacific Northwest, I was dumbfounded to discover that storms of such brutal suddenness rarely happen. A windstorm here would be just another breezy day on the plains of Illinois. I’ve lived through two summers in Washington state now, and have heard thunder maybe twice. Snow is a rare event in the lowlands. Even the rain tends to blossom into mist as it falls; few and far between are gushing torrents and pelting downpours.
But that doesn’t mean nature is all rainbows and lollipops in the PNW; instead of searching the sky for a coming disaster, now I look warily at the ground beneath my feet. If there is a natural disaster to strike Washington, it will rise from the earth, from the mountains, and from the ocean.
Since I did absolutely zero research before moving across the country, it was quite a shock when I came across Kathryn Schulz’s Pulitzer prize winning article “The Really Big One” last year. Apparently, just off the west coast sits a giant subduction zone (an area where an oceanic plate is shoving beneath the continental crust). This clash of the titans is what gave us the Cascades and created the picturesque beauty that defines the PNW But at some point, that fault is going to slips, the earth will drop, and we’ll experience an earthquake of a ferocity that has scarcely been seen in recorded history.
*cue doomsday music*
The fun doesn’t stop with the earthquake though, although that will be devastating enough in the highly populated cities such as Seattle and Portland. Because then the tsunami will come.
Après moi le déluge.
Tsunamis are rare; the science on them is new. When the 2004 tsunami devastated the coastlines of several countries in the Indian ocean, over 250,000 people died. This is the tsunami portrayed in The Impossible, the film where Naomi Watts thought it would be a great idea to shelter in front of a glass wall.
To learn more about the potential disaster, I paired up Cascadia’s Fault: The Coming Earthquake and Tsunami that could devastate North America by Jerry Thompson, and a fictional version of the event, Cascadia by H.W. “Buzz” Bernard.
Despite the doomsday implications of the title, which implies a dramatic tone akin to the History Channel’s Mega Disasters (the *insert natural disaster* that could DESTROY the UNIVERSE!!!), Cascadia’s Fault is a level-headed examination of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, carefully tracing the science that led to the discovery of this massive fault. Through a fascinating series of deductive moves that involves dendrochronology, Native American legends, and Japanese meterological records, the date of the fault’s previous rip is pinpointed to the day, 316 years ago.
The book is compelling, and Thompson makes the science easily accessible even to geological dum-dums like me. He stresses the point that the probability of another “slip” in the subduction zone is 100%. It’s not a matter of if, but when. With the explosive population growth of this very lovely section of the North American continent, a 9.0+ earthquake followed by a tsunami that would obliterate the coast (not to mention reverberate out across the world) would likely result in thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in damage. The fact is that a modern skyscraper city like Seattle has never experienced a earthquake of such magnitude. No one truly knows how a 4+ minute earthquake will affect it.
So should we all run away screaming with our arms waving in the air? Should we move inland, far away from all geological horrors and murderous waves? Should we fret about a disaster that may never happen in our lifetime?
Thompson eschews panic in favor of education and preparation; people need to understand where to go and what to do in such an event. Some towns are prepared. Tsunami evacuation routes are clearly marked (hint: don’t get in your car, just go up), buildings are built to withstand certain seismic events. People carry “go-bags” and build emergency kits.
Perhaps it’s something that the denizens of the PNW carry in the back of their minds; for many of them it is not. It’s not like a tornado, a relatively frequent event that keeps inhabitants of tornado alley from ever forgetting about them. The rare event of a massive earthquake or tsunami enables us to mill about our daily lives and cross our fingers that the next “really big one” is decades or centuries in the future.
As Kathryn Schulz writes in her article:
That timespan is dangerous both because it is too long—long enough for us to unwittingly build an entire civilization on top of our continent’s worst fault line—and because it is not long enough. Counting from the earthquake of 1700, we are now three hundred and fifteen years into a two-hundred-and-forty-three-year cycle
Now onto the fiction:
Cascadia by H.W. “Buzz” Bernard, a retired meteorologist and air force pilot is nominally a narrative about what would happen should the disaster occur.
A mercifully short read at 200 pages, the book somehow manages to include a prophetic geologist, a treasure-hunting retiree, a jerky air force pilot, some one-dimensional females mainly characterized by their bitchiness, a plane landing on a road and bouncing over an elk, a plane landing in a river and bouncing under a bridge, Native American legends, and a Greek oracle. The actual disaster doesn’t even start until page 118.
I recommend skipping the fiction and reading the non-fiction, which is much scarier. San Andreas may get all the press and blockbuster Hollywood renditions, but the “really big one” is coming, and every day we’re one day closer.
- Autocorrect keeps trying to change “subduction zone” to “seduction zone.” Both of these have dire implications.
- Seriously. Read Schulz’s article.