How did you get onto this story in the first place?
I was in New York back in 1985, working on a television documentary about Russian soldiers who had defected in Afghanistan and escaped to the States. While I was there, a huge quake hit Mexico City and one of my best friends, a CBC cameraman by the name of Robb Douglas, was in one of the first crews sent down there to cover it. As you might imagine, I heard all the horrible details from him.
The quake was caused by the same kind of offshore fault that caused the recent disaster in Japan. Also similar to the big ones in Chile (in 1960 and 2010), the same kind of quake that hit Alaska in 1964, and the one in Sumatra in 2004. The same kind of quake that will hit the West Coast eventually.
Anyway, I got assigned to do a follow-up story to find out what the scientists had learned about these big offshore faults (geologists call them subduction zones) as a result of Mexico City. The short answer then was that we in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia have the same kind of fault off our coastline and therefore should expect the same kind of quake and tsunami here.
That news came as a bit of a shock to me in 1985, because I had no idea there was this huge crack in the ocean floor just waiting to rip apart. So I was really kind of blown away by the thought of it all.
Over the next 25 years or so, as the scientists kept learning more and solving more and more of the mysteries of how these quakes happen, I wound up doing six documentaries to update the original story for network television and then this book, Cascadia’s Fault, which tries to sum up the whole thing.
I really got drawn into the history of how the science grew. All the way from the early days of continental drift to modern plate tectonics. If you enjoy science as much as I do, it’s fun to follow the debates and to explore all the blind alleys they ran down trying to figure out for sure whether our particular subduction zone was a real threat. Because a few years back there were some who thought Cascadia’s fault might not be as dangerous as other similar zones around the Ring of Fire.
There was this idea that Cascadia was some kind of exception to the rules or a special case where two tectonic plates were sliding past each other without getting stuck – without building up the kind of strain that causes megathrust quakes. Now they know for sure that the earlier theory was wrong—Cascadia’s fault has killed before and will kill again. It is definitely not a quake-free zone.
It has generated big jolts (magnitude 8 or higher) 41 times in the last 10,000 years. Nineteen of those quakes were real monsters that ripped the fault from end-to-end, 800 miles from California to British Columbia at magnitude 9 or more.
So yeah – it’s been quite a ride, chasing down these stories, reading the scientific research papers and weaving it all together in a book. It’s a history, a mystery and a cautionary tale all in one.
Why haven’t we heard about this before now?
Well, some folks living in the Pacific Northwest and in British Columbia have heard it. Or parts of it. But my guess is that most of what people know about earthquakes in America has been about the San Andreas. That’s the most famous fault in the world, probably.
And people know about it because the San Andreas or one of the faults connected to it has ruptured and wrecked cities in the recent enough past that people remember it. In California the San Andreas is in the back of everyone’s mind all the time. The Hayward fault is gonna rip any time now.
But Cascadia’s fault has not had a major quake since January 26, 1700. How they figured out the exact date and time involved some really nifty detective work. It’s in the book. But before they figured that out, they used to say, “Well, there’s been no quake on this fault in ‘all of recorded history.’ Surely if there were going to be big quakes, we would have seen one by now.”
It turns out “all of recorded history” wasn’t long enough because European settlers who started writing things down didn’t arrive here until 150 years ago or thereabouts. Sure, the tribal elders of virtually every coastal village from northern California to Canada have always told stories of a big quake and a killer wave that happened long, long ago, but there was no way to put an exact date on it. No way to make it “real” for the politicians and general public until the serious quake hunters, the seismologists and marine geologists, tracked down all the clues and finally proved it.
But anyway, they now know these quakes can be 200 years apart, or 800 years apart. Since the last one was 311 years ago, you might argue we’re overdue. Going back to the San Andreas, however, that fault has ripped in smaller quakes many times in recorded history—so yes, everybody knows about it, but not Cascadia.
The difference is that when the San Andreas generates a quake, it usually affects one big urban area—San Francisco or Los Angeles, but not both at the same time. When Cascadia goes, if we get the full magnitude 9, we’ll have damage in five cities all at once.
What’s it like being the messenger of so much doom and gloom?
Honestly? I hate it. This story has been following me around for 25 years and I just wish it would all go away. But I know it won’t because this quake really is going to happen, beyond any reasonable scientific doubt.
Do you remember when Cher slapped Nicholas Cage in “Moonstruck” and told him to “snap out of it!” ? Well, that’s basically the situation we’re in with Cascadia’s fault. Those of us who live out here have to snap out of our trance or our denial or whatever it is and get busy with a ton of work that needs to be done before we’re anywhere near ready to face what’s coming our way.
But seriously now, aren’t you just trying to scare the hell out of everybody?
Actually, I’m not. Because I think kneejerk alarmism is a complete waste of time and energy. The truth is – we’re not all gonna die. The vast majority of us will survive the quake. Cities and towns will be wrecked to some degree and the tsunami waves will kill some of us – but only a few compared to the overall population.
The last number I heard was that something like 28,000 people in Japan had been killed or were missing. Which is a terrible number, no getting around it. But there were millions more in that region who survived. In the days ahead I expect you’ll start to hear stories of how some of those folks managed to stay alive – there will be stories of miraculous heroism and ingenuity. The Japanese knew something like this would happen eventually and they were probably the most organized and prepared people in the world. But right now, we in North America are nowhere near that prepared.
So what really matters now is how well all of us survivors endure the aftermath. And that depends entirely on how much effort and energy we invest in getting ourselves ready for the inevitable.
But here’s some good news: survival skills can be learned. Education will help, so go out there and get some. Take a first aid course. Join your local emergency preparedness group. Make sure your local and national politicians don’t ignore the long list of things that need to be done right here at home.
Here’s some more good news: resilience is a state of mind and a multi-purpose tool. Whatever you teach yourself about surviving a quake will work just as well if you’re facing a forest fire, a flooding river, a hurricane or a terrorist attack.
If you think back to how the richest, most powerful, most technologically advanced nation on the planet responded to Hurricane Katrina, then just imagine what it’s gonna be like when five cities get hit with a Katrina-size disaster on the same day. The shockwaves from a magnitude 9 quake on Cascadia’s fault will reach from Sacramento to Portland to Seattle to Victoria and Vancouver in Canada. All at the same moment.
So there won’t be any government agency or white knight riding over the hill to the rescue. People are going to be on their own for days if not weeks. And that’s why now’s the time to snap out of the trance and start making your own plans for survival. Because nobody else is going to do it for you.