An earthquake that could devastate Pacific Northwest is coming, report says

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon
Giant Earthquake Predicted to Hit Pacific Northwest

By Terrell Johnson, Weather Channel

Roughly 80 miles off the coast of Oregon, there's a place deep down inside the Earth that few people living along the West Coast know about. But they will someday, years or even decades from now.

That's because this is a place called the Cascadia subduction zone, where a pair of tectonic plates are now grinding up against one another under the Pacific Ocean, and they're headed -- slowly but inevitably -- toward a moment when the pressure now building there will become too great to bear.

When that happens, a huge swath of the Pacific Northwest will be engulfed in the worst natural disaster in the history of North America, writes journalist Kathryn Schulz in a terrifying new article published this week in the New Yorker, titled "The Really Big One."

What do scientists think will happen?

A massive earthquake that would lay waste to thousands of homes and buildings, devastate the power grid and energy infrastructure, and even do things like causing the edge of the continent to drop by as much as 30 feet and liquefying solid ground.

SEE ALSO: The worst natural disasters in U.S. history:

Worst U.S. natural disasters
See Gallery
An earthquake that could devastate Pacific Northwest is coming, report says
This aerial photo shows a collapsed house along the central Jersey Shore coast on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. New Jersey got the brunt of Sandy, which made landfall in the state and killed six people. More than 2 million customers were without power as of Wednesday afternoon, down from a peak of 2.7 million. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
A mailbox with a lighthouse design sits on the porch of a burned out home in the Breezy Point section of Queens borough of New York, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012. More than 50 homes were lost in a fire that swept through the oceanside community during Superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
This aerial photo shows the Breezy Point neighborhood, in New York, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, where more than 50 homes were burned to the ground Monday night as a result of superstorm Sandy. Sandy, the storm that made landfall Monday, caused multiple fatalities, halted mass transit and cut power to more than 6 million homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
In this historical photo from May 31, 1889, survivors stand by homes destroyed when the South Fork Dam collapsed in Johnstown, Pa. As officials prepare to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the enormous Johnstown Flood of 1889 that killed 2,209 people, new research has helped explain why the deluge was so deadly. (AP Photo)
People stand atop houses among ruins after flooding in Johnstown, Pa., May 30, 1889. (AP Photo)
This NOAA satellite image taken on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, at 2:02 p.m EDT, shows Hurricane Katrina, now a Category 2 storm. (AP Photo/NOAA)
Arnold James tries to keep his feet as a strong gust nearly blows him over as he tries to make his way on foot to the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005. The roof on James's home blew off, forcing him to seek shelter at the Superdome. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
An SUV is seen crushed by bricks after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Monday Morning, Aug. 29, 2005. Katrina plowed into the Gulf Coast at daybreak Monday with shrieking, 145-mph winds and blinding rain, submerging entire neighborhoods up to the rooflines in New Orleans, hurling boats onto land and sending water pouring into Mississippi's strip of beachfront casinos. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Homes remain surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, Pool)
People walk through the rubble following an earthquake in San Francisco on April 18, 1906. On April 17, 1906, San Francisco was cosmopolitan enough to host Enrico Caruso in "Carmen" and so financially flushed it ranked fourth among American cities in raising money to help victims of a volcano in Italy. A day later, San Francisco was pleading for help itself after a giant earthquake struck along the San Andreas Fault. (AP Photo)
People on Sacramento Street watch smoke rise from fires after a severe earthquake in San Francisco, Calif., on April 18, 1906. (AP Photo/Arnold Genthe)
This April 18, 1906 file picture shows damaged houses leaning at an angle on Howard Street near 17th Street in San Francisco following a powerful earthquake. Dozens gathered early Monday morning, April 18, 2011 to commemorate the 105th anniversary of the Great 1906 Earthquake. There are only three known survivors left of the devastating quake and ensuing fire that killed thousands. (AP Photo)
16th July 1937: Early morning whirlwinds rising from finely tilled, eroded dusty soil in Walla Walla County, Washington. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In this April 15, 1935 file photo, a peaceful little ranch in Boise City, Oklahoma where the top soil was being dried and blown away, is about to be engulfed in a gigantic dust cloud in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Before becoming a part of Oklahoma Territory, this strip known as No Man’s Land was a haven for outlaws and land squatters. Later, during the Great Depression, severe drought and blinding dust storms turned the region into the Dust Bowl. The strong survived, and today the Panhandle of Oklahoma is made up of dedicated ranchers, a growing Hispanic population and awe-inspiring views of rural life at its finest. (AP Photo, File)
Workers wheel another body to refrigerated trucks outside the Cook County morgue on Tuesday, July 18, 1995 in Chicago. By noon Tuesday, 199 people, most of them poor and elderly, had died in the heat wave. (AP Photo/Mike Fisher)
CHICAGO, IL - JULY 16: A Cook County medical examiner pushes a gurney 16 July carrying the body of one of 116 people killed by heat related causes in Chicago after record hot weather hit the Midwest for several days in a row. The death toll could rise to about 300 because many of the victims were not dicovered until after the worst weather had passed and are being stored in refrigerated tractor trailers. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read BRIAN BAHR/AFP/Getty Images)
Mark Czernick and his son Zachery, 7, pray at a mass grave site, after tossing a flower onto the coffins at the Homewood Memorial Cemetery in Homewood, Ill., Friday, Aug. 25, 1995. Buried are more than 40 of the forgotten and unclaimed victims of Chicago's July summer heat disaster. (AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser)
Cook County morgue technicians work between a row of refrigerated trucks outside the morgue on Tuesday, July 18, 1995, as the city of Chicago continues to deal with the rising death count from the recent heat wave to hit the area. At least 199 lives have been claimed by the hot humid tempratures. (AP Photo/Mike Fisher)
A large part of the city of Galveston, Texas was reduced to rubble, as shown in this September 1900 photo, after being hit by a surprise hurricane Sept. 8, 1900. More than 6,000 people were killed and 10,000 left homeless from the Great Storm which remains the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. (AP Photo)
** FILE ** In this September 1900 file photo, a large part of the city of Galveston, Texas, is reduced to rubble after being hit by a surprise hurricane Sept. 8, 1900. More than 6,000 people were killed and 10,000 left homeless from the storm, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Hurricane Ike's eye was forecast to strike somewhere near Galveston late Friday, Sept. 12, 2008, or early Saturday, then head inland for Houston. (AP Photo/File)

A mega-tsunami that would arrive onshore across the Northwestern coast within 15 minutes of the earthquake's strike, creating a "700-mile-long liquid wall" that would render the region "unrecognizable."
The deaths of 13,000 people, or perhaps many more, as well as more than 1 million left homeless, and the need to provide food and water for more than 2 million for perhaps months to come.

Kenneth Murphy, the director of the division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency that's responsible for Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, said in an interview with Schulz, "Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast."

What makes this scenario even scarier is that while nations like Japan have developed and implemented earthquake warning systems that automatically shut down power plants and railroad lines, alert hospitals to interrupt surgeries and sound alarms for the general public, no such alert system is in place in the Pacific Northwest.

No Early Warning System for Earthquakes in California

The story has sent waves of alarm shooting through social media, prompting three Seattle-based scientists and writers to take to Reddit yesterday for an "Ask Me Anything" session during which they answered any and all questions from readers related to the article.

John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, participated in the AMA and cautioned readers not to panicabout the story and its implications. "Overall, it was a well-written and documented article," he said. "The scenario left an impression of much greater devastation that is anticipated to occur, however."

When asked to elaborate, Vidale said, "Communications may black out, transportation may grind to a halt, stores conceivably could run out of goods for a while, but that doesn't constitute "toast" in one's mind. The speaker must have been referring to some aspect of those problems, not to smoking rubble."

For what it's worth, FEMA's Murphy told the New Yorker that he hopes the science is off, especially because the odds of such an earthquake striking the Northwest in the next 50 years are estimated to be "one in three."

"This is one time that I'm hoping all the science is wrong, and it won't happen for another thousand years," Murphy added.

Read much more in the full article at The New Yorker here, or in the AMA "We are earthquake experts. Ask us anything about The Really Big One" here.

Read Full Story

From Our Partners