“Cascadia subduction zone tsunamis could conceivably cause
the loss of tens of thousands of lives on the Pacific Northwest coast of North
America. Paleoseismic and other data support Cascadia earthquakes with moment
magnitudes of >9, rupture lengths of >1000 km and recurrence of 400-600
years; the last event was 301 years ago, so the conditional probability of another
occurring in the next 100 years is high.”

—From a 2001 paper by George R. Priest, Oregon Department of Geology
and Mineral Industries, Newport, Oregon

On January 26, 1700, a megathrust earthquake along the Cascadia
fault of North America generated a tsunami that propagated havoc along Japan’s
Honshu Island. The waves came in from the deep at more than 10 meters — destroying
coastal villages, sinking ships and sweeping untold numbers of villagers into
the sea.

Historians in Japan recorded the event, but the witnesses in North
America handed down oral stories of the giant winter waves that appeared from
nowhere and swallowed villages. Those foggy myths made it to the ears of 20th-century
American geologists who combined them with tree rings and weird layers of sand
to support a theory that the Cascadia fault had let loose with a tremendous
earthquake between August 1699 and May 1700.

It was all theory until 1996, when geologists in Japan found written
reports of a large tsunami event along the east coast of Honshu Island. In 2003,
seismologists Kenji Satake, Klein Wang and Brian Atwater published a paper proving
the Cascadia fault had produced a 9.0 earthquake in 1700.

With that mystery answered, another one arose: How likely is that
to happen again, and what would be the consequences for the Pacific Basin?

Similar to the megathrust fault in Sumatra that caused so much
destruction throughout South Asia and East Africa, the Cascadia fault is a subduction
zone where two massive tectonic plates meet in slow collision. From Cape Mendocino
in northern California to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, the Juan de
Fuca plate is sliding under the North America plate and building up tremendous

The Cascadia is a relatively quiet fault, with most of its seismic
history buried in time and under many fathoms of ocean. Seismologists regard
the Cascadia as equally silent and potentially deadly, and so in coastal towns
from Eureka to Washington there are tsunami evacuation signs posted on every
other street corner. On local television in coastal areas, hourly PSAs answer
the musical question, “Where you gonna run to now?” by suggesting
high ground at least 100 feet above sea level. Public safety officials are more
than a little concerned for what could happen along the Cascadia fault. Which
leads to another question: “What about us south of the Point Conception

Eric Geist is a geologist with the United States Geological Survey
in Menlo Park who is more than a little wary of Cascadia, but does not have
enough information to compute what a megathrust event up there would do down
here: “Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say because we are just starting
to learn about great earthquakes along the Cascadia subduction zone,” Geist
said. “The best we can do is to look at megathrust earthquakes of the past.”

On May 22, 1960, a magnitude 9.5 earthquake along the Peru-Chile
trench generated a tsunami that struck Hilo, Hawaii, 15 hours later, killing
61 people, destroying more than 500 homes and causing $24 million in damage.
The tsunami was felt as far north as Crescent City, California, but damage there
was minimal.

Four years later, Crescent City took a direct hit from a tsunami
spawned by the magnitude 9.2 Great Alaska earthquake. Four hours and 2,000 miles
away from Anchorage, a series of four waves drained Crescent City Harbor, rushed
over the breakwater and swept commercial fishing boats 30 blocks inland. The
tsunami killed 11 people and started a fire that raged for three days.

With models made from those two Pacific megathrust events, Geist
can estimate when a Cascadia-generated tsunami would arrive here: “There
are timetables available online, but the first tsunami waves would probably
come in at about one to two hours after the earthquake.”

Geist cannot say just how powerful those tsunamis will be: “Because
Southern California is not directly across from a Cascadia rupture, the tsunami
waves will be relatively less. Sri Lanka and eastern India, as well as Sumatra
itself, are situated directly across from the rupture area, and they were the
hardest hit. Similarly, Northern California and Crescent City were in line with
focused waves from the 1964 Alaska earthquake. However, most of California is
at an oblique angle to Cascadia, and the little research we have about such
events suggest that oblique angle lessens the impact of seismic waves.”

Seismologists cannot say what the consequences of such an event
will be for Southern California, but here is a rough caveat: If you hear of
a massive seismic event occurring along the Pacific Northwest coast, resist
the temptation to run down to the beach to pick free lobster or get the money
shot for CNN. If you must, find a cliff at Palos Verdes or a vantage point high
in the Malibu Hills. Anything from 0 to 100 feet above sea level is the danger

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