If you haven't had a chance to read Kathryn Schulz's recent New Yorker article about the huge earthquake that will one day strike the Pacific Northwest, well, I don't blame you. The shit is frightening.
But, of course, you should read "The Earthquake That Will Devastate Seattle" because it's not only well written and researched but also an important reminder that we live in an earthquake zone and that we're woefully underprepared for this impending disaster. In case you're A) in denial and/or B) don't have time to read, here are five key points Schulz highlights:
1. The tectonic plates sliding underneath one another in the Cascadia subduction zone, which runs for 700 miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, usually move slowly and undetectably. But at some point, North America will "rebound like a spring," and all or part of the Cascadia subduction zone will give way. When it does, "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... within minutes."
2. As a result, a "colossal quantity of seawater will be displaced," creating a "huge hill" of water. One side of this hill of water will rush toward Japan, while "[t]he 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." Regional FEMA director Kenneth Murphy says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
3. Data suggests that the Pacific Northwest experiences subduction-zone earthquakes an average of every 243 years. "[W]e are now 315 years into a 243-year cycle." In other words, we're overdue for some shaking.
4. An earthquake early-warning system would be able to detect a Cascadia earthquake and perform some "lifesaving functions" such as "shutting down railways and power plants, opening elevators and firehouse doors, alerting hospitals to halt surgeries, and triggering alarms so that the general public can take cover." However, the Pacific Northwest has no early-warning system.
5. FEMA estimates that, across the region, about one million buildings will collapse or be compromised in the earthquake. The shaking will also set off landslides—up to 30,000 in Seattle alone. As for the subsequent tsunami: "Its height will vary with the contours of the coast, from twenty feet to more than a hundred feet. It will not look like a Hokusai-style wave, rising up from the surface of the sea and breaking from above. It will look like the whole ocean, elevated, overtaking land. Nor will it be made only of water—not once it reaches the shore. It will be a five-story deluge of pickup trucks and doorframes and cinder blocks and fishing boats and utility poles and everything else that once constituted the coastal towns of the Pacific Northwest."