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New tech could warn us of the next killer quake. Here's why we won't have it in time

New tech could warn us of the next killer quake. Here's why we won't have it in time
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

I grew up in California, so I've been through several major earthquakes and too many smaller ones to count. Yes, they can be scary, and in unfortunate rare circumstances deadly, but they're also very infrequent.

That's why I'm amused when I talk to people across the country who complain about tornadoes, floods, hurricanes or blizzards damaging their homes on a yearly basis, but when I suggest moving to California the reply is always, "Oh no, you have earthquakes."

While non-Californians, and some Californians, live in fear of "the big one" at the San Andreas fault that's going to plunge California into the ocean, you might be surprised that there's a much bigger danger further north, as a recent New Yorker article explains.

It's called the Cascadia Subduction Zone and it's where the North American tectonic plate and the Juan de Fuca oceanic plate meet. At the moment, the Juan de Fuca is sliding under the edge of the North American plate and pushing it east while the rest of the North American plate is headed west.

That's making the edge of the North American plate, which includes Northern California, Oregon, Washington and parts of Canada, compress and bulge upward. Unfortunately, that can't go on forever.

Seismology experts have outlined a few scenarios for how both plates could react when they reach the limit. In the best case, which is the Juan de Fuca plate giving way and dropping, the earthquake along the West Coast would be in the 8.0 to 8.6 range. If both plates give way, the earthquake will be an 8.7 to 9.2.

As a comparison, the infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake that destroyed 80% of the city and killed thousands is estimated to have been between 7.7 and 8.25. The massive earthquake that hit Japan in 2011 was 9.0.

The experts paint a bleak picture of what this future earthquake could be like. The entire West Coast could drop about six feet and shift 30 to 100 feet west in minutes. Thanks to the displaced ocean water, a tsunami will hit about 15 minutes later.

When it's over, the entire Pacific Northwest west of Interstate 5, which includes most of the major population centers, could be completely unrecognizable. Projections estimate a best-case of 13,000 people dead and 27,000 injured, not to mention more than a million people displaced. Depending on what time of year and when during the day the earthquake happens, that figure could be devastatingly higher.

Of course, as with all things geological, the timing on this is a bit iffy. Geologists estimate that the Cascadia Subduction Zone goes off every 243 years (based on 41 estimated earthquakes there in the last 10,000 years). The last one was in 1700, so we're a little overdue.

There's a 1 in 3 chance it could happen in the next 50 years, but it could also happen tomorrow. Just like the San Andreas fault, Mount St. Helens and the Yellowstone super volcano, the Earth does what it wants when it wants.

Still, there are things we can do to be prepared. Since 1906, our buildings are built to higher standards of earthquake safety. I was on a construction job in California a number of years ago and there are safeguards there that buildings here in Arizona don't have.

That's one big reason even mild earthquakes in other parts of the world can leave thousands dead while stronger earthquakes in the U.S. might kill a few dozen. Unfortunately, Oregon and Washington didn't start building to seismic standards until 1974, and very few buildings on the West Coast are built to withstand anything over 9.0.

It might be time to start upgrading those buildings to handle something more serious. Of course, there are other practices we can adopt from other earthquake zones that we haven't.

Japan, which is one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world, has an early-warning system. It detects the early signs of an earthquake so it can trigger sirens and send out text messages. This can give people up to a minute to prepare.

That might not sound like much, but it's enough to find shelter. It also lets trains and other transportation come to a stop, puts power plants in shutdown or emergency mode, lets gas companies shut off the flow in case there are broken pipes, and other steps that can lower loss of life.

Japan also drills its population extensively in what to do in the case of earthquakes and tsunamis. The Pacific Northwest doesn't have any cohesive plans in place for tsunami evacuation. That leaves tens of thousands of people near the water with no clue what to do or where to go.

Unfortunately, putting an early warning system and other plans in place costs money, and it's hard to convince the government or private business to spend on something that may or may not happen in the next 50 years. That's not unique to this situation, though.

In fact, the cost of the early warning system is estimated at just $16 million, which isn't a lot when you're talking about the government. There's even a prototype built by researchers at USGS, Caltech, UC Berkeley and other organizations, but so far the funding isn't there to produce it.

If you want to do something on your own, think about encouraging your friends or family to participate in The Great ShakeOut earthquake drill coming up this fall. And while it's a little late for this year's national PrepareAthon Day, you can still get good information about disaster preparedness and hook up with local disaster preparedness groups.

No matter where you live, I strongly recommend you prepare for possible disasters, and get those around you involved as well. When everything goes wrong, it's the people close to you geographically that you'll want to be able to count on.

What do you think about this new earthquake information? Does it change your mind about where you live? Are you skeptical of warnings about "the big one"? Let me know in the comments.

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Source: Gizmodo
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