Seattle author gets readers ready for next major earthquake

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 24, 2013 

Restocking my family's emergency preparedness kit zoomed to the top of my to-do list this week, after I read "Full Rip 9.0." Seattle science reporter Sandi Doughton has written this alarming assessment of our region's seismic activity throughout history and uses the latest scientific research to speculate on what we might expect in the future.

Doughton tells the story of the megaquakes that have happened around the Pacific Rim, and particularly probes the situation here in the Pacific Northwest. Offshore, where the Cascadia Subduction Zone stretches for 700 miles from southern British Columbia to northern California, the oceanic Juan de Fuca plate is grinding under the continental plate. This, coupled with shallower fault lines running throughout the Puget Sound region, creates a zone that is prone to earth movement - although sometimes we can go years without feeling a temblor.

"Full Rip 9.0" suggests we may be due.

In this book, readers meet the scientists who have been at the forefront of deciphering the way the earth moves in our region. Less than a hundred years ago, one geology professor declared our region "earthquake-proof," a claim picked up and trumpeted by local boosters including the Chamber of Commerce.

It wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that geologists developed the tools that would help them understand continental drift, and the once-revolutionary notion of plate tectonics was accepted as the way to understand the dynamic nature of earth movement.

Up until just a couple of decades ago, the notion that a megaquake might strike here was dismissed, and that catastrophes such as the 9.5 earthquake in Chile (1960) or the 9.2 earthquake in Anchorage (1964) could never happen here.

But that misperception was cut to the quick in 1986 when Brian Atwater, a geologist who specialized in mud, discovered a submerged forest on the Olympic Peninsula. Following up with exhaustive fieldwork up and down the Washington Coast, by the next year he was able to demonstrate that our state's coastline had dropped abruptly at least six times over the past seven thousand years. He believed these dramatic shifts could be linked to activity generated by the offshore subduction zone. Other geologists picked up the challenge, locating more evidence of extreme seismic activity over the last 10,000 years.

Since then, geologists have been locating new fault lines, tracking earth movement with the help of GPS monitors, and developing risk models for tsunamis and seiches (sloshing of inland waters).

Nonetheless, author Doughton points out that Washington State residents are generations behind other Pacific Rim inhabitants (in California, Chile, Japan) in earthquake preparedness. She discusses the efforts underway now to play catch up, from developing personal emergency plans and retrofitting homes, to instituting policies that will affect building codes, road and bridge construction, evacuation routes and other emergency management procedures.

Despite all this, Doughton worries that many Pacific Northwesterners are indifferent - "mired in denial." The alarming evidence in this book should serve as a clarion call to heed the warnings - and prepare.

Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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