Cascadias Fault: The Earthquake and Tsunami That Could Devastate North America

Cascadia's Fault: The Coming Earthquake and Tsunami That Could Devastate North America (Hardcover)
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The quake now pins seismic needles at magnitude 9. High-rise towers in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria begin to undulate.

The shock wave hammers through sandy soil, soft rock, and landfill like the deepest notes on a big string bass. The mushy ground sings harmony and tall buildings hum like so many tuning forks. On I-5, the main north-south interstate highway, 37 bridges between Sacramento and Bellingham, Washington, collapse or are knocked off their pins.

Five more go down between the Canada—United States border and downtown Vancouver. Nineteen railway bridges along the north-south coastal mainline of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway are wrecked as well. The runways of every major coastal airport from Northern California to Vancouver are buckled, cracked, and no longer flyable. After 50 cycles of harmonic vibration —skyscrapers swaying rhythmically from side to side in giddy wobbles—dozens of tall buildings have shed most of their glass.

"cascadia's fault"

In some downtown intersections the cascade of broken shards has piled up three feet deep. After 64 cycles, enough welds have cracked, enough concrete has spalled, enough shear walls have come unstuck that some towers begin to pancake. Smaller buildings, but more of them.

Dozens of towers go down in the four northernmost of the affected cities. In the five major urban areas along the fault, tens of thousands of people have been seriously injured. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, are dead. More than a third of the oncoming shift of police, firefighters, paramedics, nurses, and doctors do not show up for work. They are either stranded by collapsed buildings, bridges, and roadways, injured or dead themselves, or have decided to stick close to home to make sure their own families are OK before going to work.

People who survive the collapses must do their own search and rescue for family members, friends, and neighbors still trapped in the rubble. Help will come eventually, but who knows when? People in the United States and Canada, if they think at all about earthquake disasters, probably conjure up the San Andreas fault in the worst-case scenario. But if by the Big One they mean the earthquake that will wreak havoc over the widest geographic area, that could destroy the most critical infrastructure, that could send a train of tsunamis across the Pacific causing economic mayhem that would probably last a decade or more—then the seismic demon to blame could not possibly be the San Andreas.

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How could the forecast have been so wrong? If they had prepared themselves for a much larger quake and wave, the outcome might have been entirely different. Exactly the same is true of the Cascadia subduction zone —an almost identical geologic threat off the west coast of North America. Now they know they were wrong. When any two plates grind against each and get stuck, enormous stress builds up until the rocks fracture and the fault rips apart in a giant earthquake. Two other segments of the Ring of Fire ruptured this way— Chile in at magnitude 9.

Cascadia, however, is classified as the quietest subduction zone in the world. For reasons unknown, it appeared to be a special case. The system was thought to be aseismic—essentially quake free and harmless.

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This is a good summary of the evolution of earthquake science and how the Cascadia Fault came to be such a dark shadow. But whatever the ultimate figure—and even though U. My fellow residents of the Pacific Northwest: Be afraid. While I am aware of the danger, I don't worry about it. And the only possible counter - knowledge. Thanks to work done by him and his colleagues, we now know that the odds of the big Cascadia earthquake happening in the next fifty years are roughly one in three.

One possibility was that the Juan de Fuca plate had shifted direction, spun slightly by movement of the two larger plates on either side of it. This would reduce the rate of eastward motion underneath North America and thus reduce the buildup of earthquake stress. Another possibility was that the angle of the down-going eastbound plate was too shallow to build up the kind of friction needed to cause major quakes.

But the third possibility was downright scary.

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In this interpretation, the silence along the fault was merely an ominous pause. In the early s, two Caltech geophysicists, Tom Heaton and Hiroo Kanamori , compared Cascadia to active quake-prone subduction zones along the coasts of Chile and Alaska and to the Nankai Trough off the coast of Japan. They found more similarities than differences.

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Bottom line: If giant ruptures could happen there—in Chile, Alaska, or Japan—the same would probably happen here, in the Pacific Northwest. The problem, as Heaton explained it to me, was that there was no direct physical sign of earthquakes. What everyone needed and wanted was forensic evidence. In the breach, significant doubt and strong disagreement had separated the scientists into opposing camps.

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Geological Survey at the University of Washington in Seattle. If it spreads along the entire length of the Cascadia Subduction Zone—as it would in the case of a magnitude 9 earthquake—tremors would shake the Northwest for two or three minutes. See how humans are causing deadly earthquakes. Those tremors will pose an enormous threat to Seattle and other cities in the Northwest, where many homes and buildings were constructed before local codes included any seismic standards.

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