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The impending Pacific Northwest earthquake

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 19, 2015

I know I already posted this in my quick links early last week, but HOLY GOD is this Kathryn Schulz piece about the already-overdue Pacific Northwest earthquake is terrific and terrifying.

Flick your right fingers outward, forcefully, so that your hand flattens back down again. 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. (Watch what your fingertips do when you flatten your hand.) 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.”

Update: Michelle Nijhuis interviewed Schulz about how this piece came about and its impact.

Probably the hardest thing about writing this piece was that from the beginning, this story was two stories for me. It’s the overt, obvious story, which is the story of the Cascadia subduction zone. On its own, that’s an incredible story, one of the best I’ve ever happened to chance upon. But, from the get go, in my mind, it was also really a parable about climate change. And then one level deeper than that, it’s not a parable, but an example about a really deep problem in our human existence, this kind of problem of scale. We are bound by certain temporal and geographic coordinates, and it’s very very hard to see beyond them.

Update: The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center recently posted a revised version of a paper on the link between an “orphan tsunami” that occurred in Japan in 1700 and a massive earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. An accompanying video shows a forecast model animation of the tsunami.