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Thanks to that work, we now know that the Pacific Northwest has experienced forty-one subduction-zone earthquakes in the past ten thousand years. Counting from the earthquake of , we are now three hundred and fifteen years into a two-hundred-and-forty-three-year cycle. It is possible to quibble with that number. Recurrence intervals are averages, and averages are tricky: ten is the average of nine and eleven, but also of eighteen and two. It is not possible, however, to dispute the scale of the problem. The devastation in Japan in was the result of a discrepancy between what the best science predicted and what the region was prepared to withstand.

The same will hold true in the Pacific Northwest—but here the discrepancy is enormous. But the gap between what we know and what we should do about it is getting bigger and bigger, and the action really needs to turn to responding.

These destructive surges of water are caused by underwater earthquakes.

The first sign that the Cascadia earthquake has begun will be a compressional wave, radiating outward from the fault line. Compressional waves are fast-moving, high-frequency waves, audible to dogs and certain other animals but experienced by humans only as a sudden jolt. They are not very harmful, but they are potentially very useful, since they travel fast enough to be detected by sensors thirty to ninety seconds ahead of other seismic waves.

That is enough time for earthquake early-warning systems, such as those in use throughout Japan, to automatically perform a variety of lifesaving functions: 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. The Pacific Northwest has no early-warning system. When the Cascadia earthquake begins, there will be, instead, a cacophony of barking dogs and a long, suspended, what-was-that moment before the surface waves arrive.

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Surface waves are slower, lower-frequency waves that move the ground both up and down and side to side: the shaking, starting in earnest. Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so.

That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines.

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Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse. Across the region, other, larger structures will also start to fail. Until , the state of Oregon had no seismic code, and few places in the Pacific Northwest had one appropriate to a magnitude The vast majority of buildings in the region were constructed before then.

FEMA calculates that, across the region, something on the order of a million buildings—more than three thousand of them schools—will collapse or be compromised in the earthquake.


Certain disasters stem from many small problems conspiring to cause one very large problem. For want of a nail, the war was lost; for fifteen independently insignificant errors, the jetliner was lost. Subduction-zone earthquakes operate on the opposite principle: one enormous problem causes many other enormous problems. It will also induce a process called liquefaction, whereby seemingly solid ground starts behaving like a liquid, to the detriment of anything on top of it. Fifteen per cent of Seattle is built on liquefiable land, including seventeen day-care centers and the homes of some thirty-four thousand five hundred people.

Together, the sloshing, sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, pipe failures, dam breaches, and hazardous-material spills. Any one of these second-order disasters could swamp the original earthquake in terms of cost, damage, or casualties—and one of them definitely will. Four to six minutes after the dogs start barking, the shaking will subside. For another few minutes, the region, upended, will continue to fall apart on its own. Then the wave will arrive, and the real destruction will begin. Among natural disasters, tsunamis may be the closest to being completely unsurvivable.

The only likely way to outlive one is not to be there when it happens: to steer clear of the vulnerable area in the first place, or get yourself to high ground as fast as possible. Depending on location, they will have between ten and thirty minutes to get out. That time line does not allow for finding a flashlight, tending to an earthquake injury, hesitating amid the ruins of a home, searching for loved ones, or being a Good Samaritan. You run for your life. Read classic New Yorker stories, curated by our archivists and editors. The time to save people from a tsunami is before it happens, but the region has not yet taken serious steps toward doing so.

Hotels and businesses are not required to post evacuation routes or to provide employees with evacuation training. In Oregon, it has been illegal since to build hospitals, schools, firehouses, and police stations in the inundation zone, but those which are already in it can stay, and any other new construction is permissible: energy facilities, hotels, retirement homes. These lax safety policies guarantee that many people inside the inundation zone will not get out.

Washington State Park properties within the inundation zone see an average of seventeen thousand and twenty-nine guests a day. Those who cannot get out of the inundation zone under their own power will quickly be overtaken by a greater one.

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A grown man is knocked over by ankle-deep water moving at 6. The tsunami will be moving more than twice that fast when it arrives. 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.

2. Exacerbating existing problems

To see the full scale of the devastation when that tsunami recedes, you would need to be in the international space station. The inundation zone will be scoured of structures from California to Canada. The earthquake will have wrought its worst havoc west of the Cascades but caused damage as far away as Sacramento, California—as distant from the worst-hit areas as Fort Wayne, Indiana, is from New York.

If, instead, it strikes in the summer, when the beaches are full, those numbers could be off by a horrifying margin. Wineglasses, antique vases, Humpty Dumpty, hip bones, hearts: what breaks quickly generally mends slowly, if at all. OSSPAC estimates that in the I-5 corridor it will take between one and three months after the earthquake to restore electricity, a month to a year to restore drinking water and sewer service, six months to a year to restore major highways, and eighteen months to restore health-care facilities.

On the coast, those numbers go up. Whoever chooses or has no choice but to stay there will spend three to six months without electricity, one to three years without drinking water and sewage systems, and three or more years without hospitals. Those estimates do not apply to the tsunami-inundation zone, which will remain all but uninhabitable for years. But whatever the ultimate figure—and even though U. Crippled by a lack of basic services, businesses will fail or move away. Many residents will flee as well. But, by many metrics, it will be as bad or worse to be there afterward.

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On the face of it, earthquakes seem to present us with problems of space: the way we live along fault lines, in brick buildings, in homes made valuable by their proximity to the sea. But, covertly, they also present us with problems of time. The earth is 4. The brevity of our lives breeds a kind of temporal parochialism—an ignorance of or an indifference to those planetary gears which turn more slowly than our own.

This problem is bidirectional.

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The Cascadia subduction zone remained hidden from us for so long because we could not see deep enough into the past. It poses a danger to us today because we have not thought deeply enough about the future. That is no longer a problem of information; we now understand very well what the Cascadia fault line will someday do.

Nor is it a problem of imagination.

Shock Waves: 100 Years After the 1906 Earthquake

As those movies attest, we excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones. But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action. Where we stumble is in conjuring up grim futures in a way that helps to avert them. Please click here if you are not redirected within a few seconds.

IRIS ingests, curates, and distributes geoscience data IRIS provides management of, and access to, observed and derived data for the global earth science community. This includes ground motion, atmospheric, infrasonic, hydrological, and hydroacoustic data. IRIS provides a wide range of education and outreach resources Our mission is to advance awareness and understanding of seismology and earth science while inspiring careers in geophysics.

IRIS operates many prominent geophysical facilities IRIS staff and subawardees oversee the construction, operation, and maintenance of seismic networks and related data facilities utilized by a wide sector of the earth science community. Explore the world of earthquakes! IRIS has multiple online tools that allow you to learn about global and regional seismicity. Home InClass Search. Resource Levels [?

One of the most insidious side effects of poorly managed recovery involves sexual exploitation. West African refugee children in reported that humanitarian staff withheld food unless sexual favours were given. Fortunately, humanitarian organisations and international donors are aware of these pitfalls, and have implemented several mechanisms to combat them. The results of these efforts are just now becoming available, and show cause for optimism.

The Philippines is a prominent example : the Department of Social Welfare and Development coordinates disaster response, which means social protection is the highest priority. It also takes the lead during international interventions, coordinating food security, shelter, camp coordination and management, and protection, which improves coordination. Reports from TI and others also offer best practices and monitoring strategies for field staff, and organisations such as Integrity Action unite and empower citizens and local and international organisations to work amid colossal challenges without causing more damage.

A contemporary Robinsonade — York, York. The polar oceans and global climate — Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. Edition: Available editions United Kingdom. Gina Yannitell Reinhardt , University of Essex. Taking stock. Man by Shutterstock.

The Really Big One

Poor coordination One of the biggest challenges to disaster relief is coordination. Picking the right things. Clothing by Shutterstock We often feel compelled to donate our own clothing and other items. Exacerbating existing problems Who gets to the front? Internal brain drain If coordination is good and immediate relief goes well, damaged communities move into the recovery phase.

Public sector jobs taken elsewhere. Health professionals by Shutterstock The charitable provision of these services can have mixed consequences. Damage to accountability and trust Hurricane Katrina: homes and livelihoods lost. Hurricane by Shutterstock Perhaps more importantly, when external organisations step in to take over they can undermine recovery in multiple ways. Supplies by Shutterstock Of course, organisations often have to navigate difficult issues on the ground, such as corruption — something that can hamper the work of organisations externally and internally.