The Pacific Northwest is due for a powerful earthquake that will devastate the region. While it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when this earthquake will strike, experts suggest that the odds of the 140,000-square-mile region being hit in the next half century are about one in three, and the odds of an even larger event taking place are roughly one in 10.
That’s the conclusion of the terrifying and gripping report by Kathryn Schulz for The New Yorker. Schulz highlights the disastrous impact that the lesser-known fault line – the Cascadia subduction zone – could have when it produces a powerful, tsunami-causing earthquake. Schulz writes that the major quake could leave everything west of Interstate 5, which includes Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and portions of western Oregon, “unrecognizable.” These areas are home to seven million people.
The Cascadia subduction zone lies offshore from northern California to southwestern British Columbia. The zone is where two tectonic plates – the North America plate and the Juan de Fuca plate – meet; they are currently “wedged” against each other. Schulz explains that there is a “backstop,” or an immobile mass, in the center of North America, which will eventually “rebound like a spring.”
“If, on that occasion, only the southern part of the Cascadia subduction zone gives way…The magnitude of the resulting quake will be somewhere between 8.0 and 8.6. That’s the big one. If the entire zone gives way at once, an event that seismologists call a full-margin rupture, the magnitude will be somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2. That’s the very big one,” Schulz writes.
The average amount of time that elapses between subduction earthquakes is 243 years. Experts believe that the last quake occurred in 1700, and suggest that it’s overdue for another. Schulz writes that “we are now three hundred and fifteen years into a two-hundred-and-forty-three-year cycle.”
Schulz's chilling piece doesn’t pull any punches: it paints a doomsday scenario in which an estimated 13,000 people will die and an additional 27,000 will be injured. And that’s based on conservative projections. The elderly and the disabled are particularly vulnerable.
“I'm not going to sugarcoat it and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll go around and check on the elderly,’” Kevin Cupples, a city planner in Oregon, told The New Yorker. “No. We won't.”
The article is a wake-up call for many, but also reaffirms what seismologists have known for a while. As Schulz points out, an early warning system and evacuation procedures need to be put in place before the disaster strikes. Policymakers are advised to look at the “lax safety policies” to begin to effectively tackle and in some cases mitigate the catastrophic effects of an earthquake.
Gizmodo’s Alissa Walker suggests that an early warning system can be implemented to make big earthquakes less deadly, but there’s a lack of funding. She calls for people to contact their local congressperson and tell them that they want an earthquake early warning system.