Mega Tsunami To Hit Northwest? Experts Report Mega-Quake Is Overdue; How Do We Prepare?

By Philip Ross on March 15, 2013 1:45 PM EDT

Japan tsunami
Researchers say that a mega tsunami, like the one that devastated Japan in 2011, is “long overdue” for the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Pictured is flooding in Japan's Sendai Airport after the tsunami two years ago. (Photo: Creative Commons)
Oregon coast
The Northwest coast of the U.S. is "long-overdue" for a mega tsunami. (Photo: Creative commons)

Is the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. overdue for a mega tsunami? According to new research, the startling answer is yes.

A report presented to the Oregon legislature on Thursday details the chilling reality that the Pacific Northwest of the United States is mega tsunami territory and that the geological hourglass for a major natural disaster is running out. The report comes from the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC), which says that a major undersea earthquake, like the one that crippled parts of Japan two years ago, is "long overdue". And, according to the study, the question about the imminence of a mega tsunami in the Northwest is not a question of if it will happen, but rather when it will happen.

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Titled the "Oregon Resilience Plan: Reducing Risk and Improving Recovery for the Next Cascadia Earthquake and Tsunami", the report details the economic impacts and human toll of a major earthquake and tsunami striking the Northwest U.S. Researchers estimate the economic costs of a mega tsunami in the region to exceed $32 billion. Critical infrastructure along the coast like hospitals and police stations would be destroyed; schools, towns, and buildings would be inundated; bridges would collapse; and upwards of 10,000 lives would be lost, and many others will be left without water, power or heat, according to the study. It's an Armageddon-like scenario that isn't a Hollywood production.  

Researchers calculated the odds that a major undersea earthquake will occur in the next 50 years to range from seven to 15 percent for a great earthquake affecting the entire Pacific Northwest and roughly 37 percent for a very large quake affecting southern Oregon and northern California.  

The Oregon legislature gave the commission the green light to carry out the study back in 2011. Prompted by the horrific, devastating tsunami that crippled parts of Japan that year, researchers wanted to measure just how devastating a tsunami on our own shores would be. As the Daily Mail points out, the report proposes that Oregon and Japan are geologically mirror images of one another. Researchers also say that, despite the devastation in Japan, the country had preemptively spent billions of dollars to help mitigate the damage and was more prepared than the U.S. is now for a similar disaster.

Along the Pacific Northwest coast of the U.S. is an offshore fault line called the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The fault stretches  600 miles from northern Vancouver Island to northern California, and is just a stone's throw from the coastline - in some places, less than 50 miles from the shore.

Because of its size and geology, Cascadia can produce very large earthquakes, even ones exceeding magnitude 9.0 - the same magnitude as the quake that rocked Japan two years ago. According to the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, the last major quake Cascadia produced was in January of 1700. Evidence shows that mega earthquakes have occurred at least seven times in the last 3,500 years, or one every 400 to 600 years. Some of those occurred simultaneously in less than two centuries time.

According to KATU, "This earthquake will hit us again," Kent Yu, an engineer and chairman of the commission, told lawmakers. "It's just a matter of how soon."

A 2011 report from The Economist shows the economic costs, released by the World Bank, of major natural disasters in the past 30 years. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, for instance, racked up about $240 billion in damages - about four percent of the country's GDP. The 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake inflicted $200 billion in damage, hurricane Katrina exacted approximately $160 billion in damages, and the 1994 Northridge earthquake inflicted nearly $100 billion in damage.

Many of Oregon's coastal towns are underprepared for a major natural disaster like a tsunami. Seaside, for example, a coastal city on the northernmost tip of Oregon with a population of about 6,500, has 83 percent of its population, 89 percent of its employees, and almost 100 percent of its critical facilities like hospitals and law enforcement in the tsunami inundation zone, according to Horning Geosciences. The Seattle Times reports that it could take up to three months to restore power to 70 percent of normal after a Cascadia quake, and fixing toppled transmission towers could take as long as three years. And when jobs and infrastructure vanish, people will leave, creating a downward economic spiral for the region.  

So what can be done to prepare for a mega tsunami?  In their report, the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission stresses the need for upgrading existing buildings in the most vulnerable areas to make them safer during a major earthquake. They also strongly recommend expanding emergency operation efforts, replacing vulnerable public facilities like schools, and strengthening transportation lifelines like bridges so that food supply units can more easily reach those in need.

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