Growing up in an Earthquake Zone

Pat Walling, Kmareka’s new West Coast correspondent (we’re nationwide) reports from Seattle, where Japan’s recent disasters deeply affect Americans who live in an earthquake zone, and, in many cases, have friends and relations in Japan. Thank you, Pat, for this fascinating post…

Since the March 11th megaquake in Japan, all eyes have been on the West Coast, waiting for disaster. Jim Berkland, a prominent geologist who specializes in earthquake prediction, has lit the imaginations of many by pointing out a clockwise rotation of enormous quakes around the Ring of Fire, which is an enormous, nearly unbroken line of seismic activity that circles the Pacific ocean. The Pacific tectonic plate is like a pot lid quaking when the water beneath is at full boil. Thus, looking at the earthquakes hitting Chile, New Zealand and finally Japan along the edge of the Ring, it’s an easy assumption to make that the next disaster will hit on the west coast of North America.

For residents of the Pacific Northwest, it seems pretty clear that if (or perhaps, when) that quake hits us, it will be cataclysmic. Even for all that though, Seattle is not abuzz with fear mongering, earthquake proofing, people figuring out how to do medical billing in case of overtaxed hospitals or even people driving around to figure out the proper escape routes for tsunamis. This may be because it’s not quite construction season yet, but it’s also because we’ve all been aware of the dangers here for quite some time.

In its early history, the city of Seattle slid into the Puget Sound on multiple occasions before proper measures were taken to fortify it (although this was not only due to earthquakes, but also mudslides: Seattle isn’t called “Rain City” for nothing). In school, when earthquakes happened, we would quickly hide under our desks or run for a doorjamb to stand in, and then get on with class. It’s just a part of our consciousness. Last year, the Department of Transportation disseminated a video simulating the Nisqually earthquake from ten years ago, if it were bigger, longer and the epicenter closer to Seattle. The video quickly made the rounds, but I never recall it being on the news. My bet would be that that’s because it’s not worth our fear, we have to keep going on with our lives instead of being terrified of this:

Towards the end of the video you can see the waterfront, and the note that says “no tsunami expected.” Non-Seattleites are liable to think that since there’s ocean water, there can be tsunamis. My family lives close to the water, and my mother, not being originally from the area, quickly ran to her car after the March 11th quake with some important documents and drove to high ground. I laughed and went back to breakfast.

Another thing I learned in school was that the topography of the Puget Sound, the enormous inlet by which Seattle is built, is complex. Many people imagine bodies of water to have smooth bottoms, but the Puget Sound used to be a mountain range, which has since sunk, leaving the tallest mountains as islands such as the San Juans. Tsunamis, like all waves, have a cylinder shape, which you can see when a wave breaks on the shore and the top curves over to make a circle. A tsunami moving through such an obstacle course would quickly dissipate, breaking over each of the underwater mountains before it could hit anything. There’s also the fact that there isn’t a lot of water compared to the ocean in the Sound, and there aren’t really many straight stretches of water without islands or coastlines to break it up. The Japanese tsunami never made it to Seattle, and it’s unlikely any tsunami formed here would harm us, much less even make it out of the sound.

I mentioned the San Juans. Another thing people who grew up here are aware of is that there is a small plate between us and the Pacific plate, acting as a buffer zone. This plate is called the plate of San Juan de Fuca, named for the same guy the San Juan Islands are named after. This plate is pushing underneath the North American plate, and this subduction zone is responsible for the Cascade mountains- and its volcanoes. Some of you may remember May 18th, 1980- the day Mt. St. Helens erupted. Mt. St. Helens is one of the volcanoes along this subduction line, just to give you a hint at the destructive power of the San Juan de Fuca plate. Mount Rainier, the biggest mountain in the contiguous United States, is another of these volcanoes, and if it were to erupt the results would be absolutely traumatic. However, although it is an active volcano, there appears to be no imminent threat- and as I mentioned, the San Juan plate lies between us and the Pacific plate, and as a result we do not get the more regular earthquakes that plague California.

With this sort of pseudo-scientific understanding we received in primary school, I think Pacific Northwesterners are a lot more comfortable with the possibility of disaster. Any fear we have is not nameless, and we understand the dangers that face us. It is with this understanding in mind that when Ninja Nurse asked me to write an article about how people deal with the pending megaquake in daily life, I said that it is hard to say if we do at all. I have not perceived much of a change in feeling in my state since Mr. Berkland’s prediction, except for the extraordinary amount of charity we’ve been sending to Japan — we have a large Japanese community in Seattle. Perhaps this is a result of growing up familiar with earthquakes.

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2 thoughts on “Growing up in an Earthquake Zone

  1. Mt Rainier is a major danger- Tacoma sits on 14 layers of mud flows from previous eruptions. We’re moving to coastal WA state soon, but you can be sure we looked at nothing below 100 ft elevation.

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