The New Yorker released an article about the Cascadia Subduction Zone — a fault that runs across the entire U.S. Pacific Northwest, that scientists predict will trigger a 9.2-magnitute earthquake and tsunami. See below for an interview with one of the world’s best seismologists to see what they’re doing to prevent this terrible disaster.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us today.
Thanks for having me!
That New Yorker article was really scary. It was exaggerating right? The Cascadia Subduction Zone can’t completely destroy the West Coast, right?
Oh, it definitely can.
Yes. This wasn’t one of those aggrandized think pieces. Seattle, Portland, Tacoma, Vancouver … they’ll be completely wiped out. The odds of this happening in the next 50 years is one in three. It will likely be a 9.2 on the Richter scale, higher than the earthquake that caused the tsunami in Japan. FEMA predicts 13,000 people will die in the disaster, but it could be more like 100,000.
Wow. OK. Holy shit. Well, what’s science doing to stop this thing from happening?
What do you mean?
Science is figuring out a way to prevent this, right?
These are two massive tectonic plates sliding over each other. The only thing we have a modicum of control over is how many people die.
OK … surely science can find a way to evacuate everyone before it happens, right?
Definitely not. The fault only ruptures about once every 245 years. The last time was 1700, and there weren’t any white people living there yet. When Americans settled the area, they had no idea of the risks. So there’s no earthquake-warning systems in place. The only warning you’ll get is a compressional wave that will make your dog bark. Then 30 seconds later will come the big shake, which will destroy almost 3 million buildings, not to mention the liquefaction of the ground. Then 15 minutes later, the tsunami will strike, wiping out anyone who managed to stay alive.
And you can’t fix it?
Fix it? No.
But science can find a solution to everything.
I don’t know why you think that.
Because if I get cancer when I’m old, science will have a cure by then. If global warming is destroying the Earth, science will figure out a way to reverse it!
Oh, that’s very inaccurate. Unfortunately, the Cascadia Subduction Zone is eventually going to kill at least thousands of people. 100%.
No, see, these things happen in other countries, they don’t happen to us—
75% of buildings in the area aren’t designed to withstand a quake, including two-thirds of all hospitals in the area and 3,000 schools. The earthquake alone will set off 30,000 landslides just in Seattle. I mean, people are going to die.
I don’t like this!!!!
You know, even though this will be a massive disaster, millions of people die in car accidents every year. You should be more worried about that.
Now I am! Oh my god! Does life even have meaning?!
I’m a seismologist.
(terrified blank stare)
Listen, both death and natural disasters are inevitable. Everyone on the planet will die some day, and some people will die from natural disasters as long as humans are a species.
I’M NEVER GOING TO DIE!!!!!!!!!!!!
Whoa, OK there.
Sorry, this stuff is just really scary.
I know, sshhhh, shhhh. Hey there. It’s OK.
Thanks for stroking my head like that. It’s really comforting.
I’m used to it. Most interviewers have this reaction. We really are just tiny nothing specks in the universe.
I feel so small.
Isn’t it amazing to think that the last time this happened the United States didn’t even exist? That our lifespans are that insignificant to the Earth?
I guess so. But like, maybe scientists can figure out a way to stuff some padding underneath the tectonic plate so it doesn’t—
What did they do in the San Andreas movie with The Rock? Maybe that will work … where are you going? Wait! Come back! You have to tell me how we’re gonna stop this thing!!!