Types of earthquake waves

The Pacific Northwest is known for having its fair share of earthquakes. One source of these tremors is the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a fault line where tectonic plates constantly grind against each other under the Pacific Ocean. According to recent reports, the pressure caused by this movement is building up. 

What will happen when this pressure becomes too much to handle? Many say the worst natural disaster in North American history will hit the Emerald City. But will it really be so catastrophic, or is it the victim of sensationalization?

This impending earthquake, dubbed “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz in her now-famous article for The New Yorker, has been gaining attention in the media. According to the article, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) even has predicted the time of earthquake at 9:41 a.m., Feb. 6, 2016.

Media coverage of this earthquake has been extensive, with numerous outlets advertising the seismic event as the end of the Pacific Northwest as we know it. 

The article in The New Yorker mentioned some eyebrow-raising statistics. According to the article, FEMA projects 13,000 people will die in the massive magnitude 9.0 (M9) Cascadia earthquake.

“Buried in The New Yorker article are the correct odds,” said John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN), in an email. “We think M9 earthquakes hit about once every 500-600 years, on average, but without regular spacing. It has been 315 years since the one in 1700 A.D., and that translates to odds now of about 1 in 300 per year.”

But when it comes to the damage caused by the earthquake, Vidale takes it with a grain of salt.

“An M9 would be very serious, but hardly the drenched and scorched ground reaching out to Portland and Seattle that some inferred from the [New Yorker] article,” Vidale said.

Similar sentiments are shared by some UW students as well. 

“I feel like it’s kind of being more exaggerated in the media,” said Vincent Babasa, a UW junior majoring in medical laboratory science. “It makes it seem like the earthquake is going to happen right now and that it would just kill everyone.”

With the media reporting myriad numbers and statistics about the catastrophe that could be this earthquake, panic may be induced. However, these are only imperfect estimations.

“Very large error bars need to be attached to any such estimation,” said Bill Steele, director of communications at PNSN, in an email. “[These numbers] should be used to gauge the severity of the disaster rather than thinking it will accurately reflect the actual number of casualties.”

In an article for The Weather Channel’s website, Vidale mentioned what he thought could occur in an earthquake like this. He talked about communications blacking out, transportation being severely disrupted, and stores running out of goods for a while. 

Regardless of the levels of damage many are speculating, FEMA is intent on making preparations now. The study of such an earthquake occurs through various instrumentations and methods. Combined, these give scientists an idea about the facts of the impending M9.

Some of the best ways to learn about earthquake history are studies of sediments on the seafloor, analysis of tsunami deposits on land, and interpretation of Native American legends, according to Vidale.

“The sediments show layering for each big earthquake that can be dated for the last 10,000 years,” Vidale said in an email. “The land deposits include buried and submerged trees, tsunami-deposited sand, and disturbed sediments. The legends apparently preserve a verbal record of the earthquake and tsunami in the year 1700.”

Preparing for this earthquake is an effort being done in advance by FEMA, but people inhabiting the affected areas can also start now.

“First off, think it through,” Steele said in an email. “Make a plan on about how to contact family and loved ones. If bridges are closed how might you regroup after an event?”

One thing’s for sure: Listen to what the media is reporting about the quake with caution, but be prepared.

“I’m really glad that a lot of people are knowing about the threat now and potentially learning how to prepare,” Babasa said.

Reach reporter Zoha Syed at science@dailyuw.comTwitter: @Zoha_S_101

(1) comment

While I appreciate the continued press coverage by the DAILY on the ever-present threat of a major regional earthquake caused by a rupture of the Cascadia Subduction Zone fault off of the Pacific Coast, I am a bit disappointed that your science reporter, Zoha Syed, did not do enough fact-chekding or thorough research for this expected for an article showing up in the Science section of the DAILY.

In the article, she writes "the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has even predicted the time of the earthquake at 9:41 am on Feb. 6, 2016". Oh really!? The DAILY should not continue to fan the flames of fear and misinformation. Ihage to break the news to you Ms. Syed, but neither FEMA nor any current reputable scientific or seismic research organization on this globe can currently preciely predict WHEN and earthquake is going to occur -- especially down to the exact day and minute! If you and the DAILY have access to a new secret earthquake prediction tool, I would love to see it.

Had your science reporter done her research more thoroughtly, the article should have stated instead that "These projections are based on a SCENARIO that has the earthquake striking at 9:41 a.m. February 6. (The agency isn't trying to predict the future or saying that the earthquake will definitely occur then, they just need a date to plan around.) ..."

Let's not try to look into your DAILY science reporter's crystal ball and continue to perpetuate this urban myth. It just causes the general public to have unrealistic expectations of the current capabilities of science to be able to predict events that are still quite unpredictable.

YES, a big earthquake will one day severely impact the Pacific Northwest. YES it will be a bad couple of weeks and months. YES, many people will die, get injured and lose their homes and businesses....and YES, there are a number of plans, activities and people/resources that have been preparing for this earthquake for over a decade. That includes the UW and my office, UWEM (website: www.huskyem.org) that has a wealth of information, resources and tools for UW students, faculty and staff on the earthquake threat in the Pacific Northwest as well as how we can prepare to survive it.

Thanks for the chucle. I think I will keep my annual dental cleaning appointment for that morning. I dont expect that my session will be interrupted by some unexpected earth-shattering event that morning!

-Steve Charvat, CEM
UW Office of Emergency Management (UWEM)

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