An earthquake that could devastate Pacific Northwest is coming

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.

Check out the worst natural disasters in U.S. history:

Worst U.S. natural disasters
See Gallery
An earthquake that could devastate Pacific Northwest is coming
16th July 1937: Early morning whirlwinds rising from finely tilled, eroded dusty soil in Walla Walla County, Washington. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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)

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.

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