The Really Big One

An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.

The New Yorker, By Kathryn Schulz, July 20 Issue

When the 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck Tohoku, Japan, Chris Goldfinger was two hundred miles away, in the city of Kashiwa, at an international meeting on seismology. As the shaking started, everyone in the room began to laugh. Earthquakes are common in Japan—that one was the third of the week—and the participants were, after all, at a seismology conference. Then everyone in the room checked the time.

Seismologists know that how long an earthquake lasts is a decent proxy for its magnitude. The 1989 earthquake in Loma Prieta, California, which killed sixty-three people and caused six billion dollars’ worth of damage, lasted about fifteen seconds and had a magnitude of 6.9. A thirty-second earthquake generally has a magnitude in the mid-sevens. A minute-long quake is in the high sevens, a two-minute quake has entered the eights, and a three-minute quake is in the high eights. By four minutes, an earthquake has hit magnitude 9.0.

When Goldfinger looked at his watch, it was quarter to three. The conference was wrapping up for the day. He was thinking about sushi. The speaker at the lectern was wondering if he should carry on with his talk. The earthquake was not particularly strong. Then it ticked past the sixty-second mark, making it longer than the others that week. The shaking intensified. The seats in the conference room were small plastic desks with wheels. Goldfinger, who is tall and solidly built, thought, No way am I crouching under one of those for cover. At a minute and a half, everyone in the room got up and went outside.

It was March. There was a chill in the air, and snow flurries, but no snow on the ground. Nor, from the feel of it, was there ground on the ground. The earth snapped and popped and rippled. It was, Goldfinger thought, like driving through rocky terrain in a vehicle with no shocks, if both the vehicle and the terrain were also on a raft in high seas. The quake passed the two-minute mark. The trees, still hung with the previous autumn’s dead leaves, were making a strange rattling sound. The flagpole atop the building he and his colleagues had just vacated was whipping through an arc of forty degrees. The building itself was base-isolated, a seismic-safety technology in which the body of a structure rests on movable bearings rather than directly on its foundation. Goldfinger lurched over to take a look. The base was lurching, too, back and forth a foot at a time, digging a trench in the yard. He thought better of it, and lurched away. His watch swept past the three-minute mark and kept going.

Oh, shit, Goldfinger thought, although not in dread, at first: in amazement. For decades, seismologists had believed that Japan could not experience an earthquake stronger than magnitude 8.4. In 2005, however, at a conference in Hokudan, a Japanese geologist named Yasutaka Ikeda had argued that the nation should expect a magnitude 9.0 in the near future—with catastrophic consequences, because Japan’s famous earthquake-and-tsunami preparedness, including the height of its sea walls, was based on incorrect science. The presentation was met with polite applause and thereafter largely ignored. Now, Goldfinger realized as the shaking hit the four-minute mark, the planet was proving the Japanese Cassandra right.


If, on that occasion, only the southern part of the Cascadia subduction zone gives way—your first two fingers, say—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.


In fact, the science is robust, and one of the chief scientists behind it is Chris Goldfinger. 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. The odds of the very big one are roughly one in ten. Even those numbers do not fully reflect the danger—or, more to the point, how unprepared the Pacific Northwest is to face it. The truly worrisome figures in this story are these: Thirty years ago, no one knew that the Cascadia subduction zone had ever produced a major earthquake. Forty-five years ago, no one even knew it existed.

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  • Well…, Hard To Say “Thanks”…,
    for that one Raja…, living here on the Olympic Peninsula 🙂
    I took a Geology course…, some 20 years back now…, but the professor clued us in to Atwater (Atwood? to lazy to check correct spelling now :)) theory. Believed it then…, and this confirmation doesn’t do much to ease my mind. But I guess the Californians have been living with the threat of falling off into the ocean for much longer than that. What…, with all the other prognostications of financial collapse, climate change, nuclear war or Fukisima meltdown…, I guess I will just hang tough here and play the cards that are dealt…, whenever they get dealt.

    And thanks again partner…, for keeping the newswire updated…, and everything else you do here to keep things movin’ on here 🙂

    • I wondered how you’d take the article…

      At least Forks has an elevation of 348 ft, so it’ll not suffer tsunami damage, the worst of it. You could consider preparing; I think an emergency helicopter could come in handy.

      You’re welcome; I guess I’ll have to keep at it!

      • We Live About 10 Miles…,
        out of town…, and have to cross two rivers and bridges to get there. Elevation is 200 feet…, but our property borders a steep drop off into the Sol Duc River valley. A good point is that we are less than a mile from the Quillayute Airport…, and I was encourage to read this today:

        Planning in progress for ‘Big One’ in Pacific Northwest in the Peninsula Daily News online.

        Preparations are underway for the aftermath of a massive Cascadia Subduction Zone quake in the Pacific Northwest.

        “We’ve been focused on this for a few years and are developing a plan as to how to respond to this threat so we are not caught unaware,” said Lt. Col. Clayton Braun of the Washington National Guard, who is involved in developing a response plan.

        Emergency management personnel have been conducting workshops and planning sessions with local, state, federal, military and tribal officials focusing on earthquake and tsunami readiness.

        The workshops are leading up to a major earthquake and tsunami exercise over four days — called Cascadia Rising — planned to begin June 7, 2016.

        There are no Tier 1 facilities on the Peninsula due to the lack of accommodation of larger aircraft. Port Angeles is rated as Tier 2 and Forks as Tier 3.

        The plan establishes two 20,000-gallon fuel farms consisting of above-ground fuel bladders in Port Angeles and Quillayute Airport, and 10,000-gallon fuel farms in Neah Bay, Forks, Sequim and Port Townsend.

        One priority would be to provide water filtration systems to people who live close to streams and lakes while trucking in and distributing water into the metro areas, Braun said.

  • More than 5,000 earthquakes hit northwest Nevada

    Swarm of earthquakes started in July 2014

    KCRA, August 11

    Reno, NV —Seismologists studying a year-long swarm of thousands of mostly minor earthquakes in northwest Nevada say they could be the precursor for a “big one,” although speculation that they’re related to a series of extinct volcanoes can’t be ruled out.

    The University of Nevada’s Reno Nevada Seismological Laboratory announced Tuesday that there have been 5,610 earthquakes in a swarm that started in July 2014 in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge near the Oregon border.

    More than 200 have registered at a magnitude of 3 or greater, which is enough to be felt by ranchers and residents nearby. The largest one hit on Nov. 6 with a magnitude of 4.7, although there’s also been a recent flare-up since mid-July.

    “It’s kind of usual that it has lasted so long,” said Ken Smith, a seismologist.

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