Friday, September 2, 2011

Megaquake: It's not if but when

Journalist Thompson presents clear picture of coming disaster and urges greater preparedness

By JACQUELINE WINDH   The Vancouver Sun     August 4, 2011

 Journalist and documentary filmmaker Jerry Thompson has been chasing the story of the Cascadia subduction zone, which lies off North America’s West Coast, and the possibility of a “megathrust” earthquake, for 30 years. In the introduction to Cascadia’s Fault, he notes that “scientists, civil engineers, and emergency planners know with certainty that it’s bound to happen here, but they’re having a devil of a time getting anyone to pay attention. This book, I hope, will change that.”

Cascadia’s Fault was going to press just as the magnitude 9 Tohoku Earthquake rocked Japan this March, sending a series of tsunami waves to Cascadia’s shores.

By the time those waves reached North America, much of their power had been sapped. Nevertheless, they caused damages estimated at over $50 million to coastal towns in California and Oregon, and killed one man. Although Canadian coastlines were spared any significant damages, local residents of towns such as Ucluelet, Tofino and Port Alberni reported strong currents and rapid sea-level fluctuations of a metre or more.

While this timing may seem bad luck for author Thompson, for it makes his detailed compendium and analysis of most of the planet’s recent large quakes instantly out-of-date, it is also fortuitous. If Thompson’s aim with this book was to draw attention to the risk of a large subduction-associated megaquake here in North America, the comparison of our situation with Japan’s can only help that.

Geologically, the Japanese scenario is a mirror-image of our geological setting here: a sometimes-locked subduction zone, where the Pacific tectonic plate moves in fits and starts beneath the thicker continental plate. Socially, the Japanese scenario is analogous to our own as well — directly above those subducting plates are modern cities sprinkled with mammoth structures of concrete and metal: highrises, industrial facilities, and highway overpasses.

The Cascadia subduction zone is an active fault that is 1,300 kilometres in length, extending from Northern California to northern Vancouver Island. When it finally slips — which could be in 200 years or it could be tonight — the destruction will be analogous to what happened in Japan, devastating a region 200 kilometres wide along the entire length of the fault, including the cities of Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Portland and Sacramento.

Although it is a valuable compendium of information, as a text the book suffers somewhat in its structure. Part detective story, part memoir and part popular science, the narrative is crafted as a thriller. The detective story — investigating whether the Cascadia subduction zone has the potential to generate magnitude 9 megaquakes — takes up the bulk of the text. Chapters flit around in time, jumping from the 1980s to the 1960s to the 2000s: describing other megaquakes that have occurred around the planet and assembling evidence from various scientific studies.

But a thriller loses much of its punch when we already know the answer to the mystery (in the text, the revelation that Cascadia’s fault is probably not harmless comes on page 204). And the memoir aspects of the story, chronicling the author’s interest in the subject, and his travels and interviews over the decades, come so few and far between that the jump to the first person can be jarring.

But Thompson excels when he explains the science. His methodical chronicling tells how each piece of the puzzle was uncovered — from investigations of cedar forests killed by saltwater flooding in Washington state, to GPS arrays that reveal the slow but steady compression of mountain ranges on Vancouver Island. Thompson presents the data that, together, provide a clear picture of the scale and magnitude of Cascadia’s coming earthquake and tsunami.

Whereas most of the book is devoted to piecing together the geological evidence, its final quarter addresses emergency planning. And this is a call for us to examine, especially here in Canada, what we are doing to prepare for it.

While American states, particularly California and Oregon, have detailed disaster plans and public awareness programs, British Columbia lags behind. Canada has no National Guard, and most of our active army units are either stationed east of the Rockies or deployed overseas. Damage to infrastructure: roads and railways and bridges, along with the potential scale of this disaster — how many communities will be affected — will cause delays of days or even weeks for rescue crews trying to provide assistance.

Thompson does a fine job of assembling the information about this coming event, literally presenting it on a platter to anyone who will listen. But, as one of the scientists he quotes says, “What the emergency response people do with that — it’s up to them.”

Jacqueline Windh is an author and photographer who holds a Ph.D. in Earth Sciences. She is based on Vancouver Island.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Friday, July 15, 2011

Review of Cascadia's Fault

by Dan McShane -- an engineering geologist with Stratum Group, a geology and environmental consulting company based in Bellingham, Washington.

Excerpt from the review:

The challenge of reviewing this book is trying to do the book proper justice. I am not sure I can meet the same standard of good writing, good journalism and good science that Mr. Thompson did so well.

I am a geologist; I am way into tectonics; I even made what I would describe as a pilgrimage to see the ghost forest at the Copalis River that was part of the compelling body of evidence that built the case for a great quake on the coast of Washington. As such, some of this book provided the simple pleasure of reading a very well written perspective on the familiar; however, Cascadia's Fault included ideas and stories and perspectives on the subject that were new to me...

The book tells the story of how geologists unraveled the clues about the great quake. It is a great story of how science gets done and how observations and ideas build on one another. I remember the debates about whether or not the Cascadia subduction zone was asiesmic or locked and dangerous and how that question was resolved. But the book adds many facets of the story I did not know and puts into context the early days of plate tectonics figuring out seismicity along subduction zone faults and how those early day ideas evolved how we think about the Cascadia fault. The book reads like a very good mystery novel building the clues one on another, but without the typical overblown hype that often passes as science writing...

For the full review, visit:

Friday, June 17, 2011

Cascadia's Fault review on Highly Allochtonous

Excerpt from the review:

If you don’t know much about the risk posed by Cascadia, then you are not alone; indeed, for a long time even geologists were in the dark. The story of how they slowly uncovered the danger signs is the focus of journalist Jerry Thompson’s excellent new book, Cascadia’s Fault, a creditable attempt to raise awareness beyond geoscientists and emergency planners who have, as he puts it in his introduction, been “having a devil of a time getting anyone to pay attention.”

For the full article visit:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Excerpt from Cascadia's Fault on the Nervous Breakdown


On Christmas Eve 2004 my wife, Bette, and I were in a hotel bar in San Francisco dreaming up plot points for a film we’d like to shoot some day when a woman arrived from the airport with breathless news. The bartender clicked his remote and It’s a Wonderful Life vanished, Jimmy Stewart’s smiling face wiped off the screen by a mountain of angry seawater. I can still see those endlessly repeated loops of amateur video shot from the balconies of beachfront resorts in Sumatra and Thailand, relayed by satellite to every TV receiver on the planet.

The first horrifying, mesmerizing wave crashed against a seawall, jetting skyward in salty white torrents, tearing through a fringe of palm trees like a monsoon river, across a hotel pool deck and a manicured square of green lawn. The darkening surge roared uphill through narrow, cluttered streets choked with tourist luggage, broken timbers, small motorcycles with their riders struggling to stay vertical, cargo vans overturned and bulldozed by white froth into market stalls. A transit bus floating on its side began to sink as desperate passengers jumped from the slippery roof.
It’s impossible to forget the images, those flailing human bodies—especially one unfortunate older man clinging to the outside railing of a rapidly filling parkade. Exhausted and in shock, he finally let go. We watched as he sank into the muddy torrent and was swept away.

More than 230,000 people in fourteen countries around the Indian Ocean died or disappeared, many of them before our eyes, and there was nothing any of us could do.  Everything not nailed to the ground was torn loose and carried off by the roaring water. And there was more to come. Even after the first water had cut a swath nearly a mile inland and then sucked itself halfway out to sea again, full of death and floating debris, people standing among the palms were so stunned by the spectacle they waited too long to outrun the next wave.

For the full excerpt, visit:

Jerry Thompson: The TNB Self-Interview

Excerpt from the interview:

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.

To read the full article, visit:

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rhod Sharp interviews Jerry Thompson on BBC Radio 5

Listen to the audio file from the interview:

Saturday, May 28, 2011

This Political Earthquake Is Inevitable

"Jerry Thompson, a longtime journalist, doesn't say much if anything about politics in his new book. But the political implications of his book, for Canada and the United States, are inescapable."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Booknews Review of Cascadia's Fault

Excerpt from Print Article:

"Thompson, a journalist and documentary film producer, presents this frightening look at the Cascadia subduction zone and the risk it poses to major American West coast cities through powerful earthquakes and devastating tsunami waves. Drawing from current seismology research and the effects of recent massive quakes in Chile, Sumatra and Japan, the work outlines the risks to this seemingly quiet section of the "Ring of Fire" and advocates for better disaster preparedness as the only way to survive the inevitable disaster to come."

Shaken and Stirred: Book review of Cascadia's Fault in Sacramento News Review

Monday, May 16, 2011

Booklist Review of Cascadia's Fault

Excerpt from May issue of Booklist:

"Despite its fear-mongering subtitle, this is a level-headed look at a potentially devastating natural disaster. Prompted by a massive earthquake in 1985 that caused widespread destruction in Mexico City, Canadian television journalist Thompson began researching a potential disaster zone much closer to home: the Cascadia Subduction Zone (once known as the Juan de Fuca plate), an 800-mile fault under the Pacific Ocean that, some experts say, has a 70 percent chance of producing a massive earthquake off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. This fascinating book explores the Cascadia Subduction Zone and the research surrounding it, while, at the same time, offering readers a broader picture: the story of earthquake science and the researchers who, even today, are making new discoveries that could help predict (if not actually prevent) major earthquakes before they happen. The book is tailored for readers interested in weather science, and it is not written in the liveliest of styles; still, given recent events in Japan, a thoughtful, serious book on the subject of earthquakes in the Pacific should be most welcome."
— David Pitt

Friday, May 13, 2011

Agency workers prepare citizens for looming Oregon earthquake

Excerpt from article:

"Being prepared for an event like this is not that difficult because you're going to survive the earthquake," he said. "But, you better have an emergency plan in place, an emergency kit, put aside some food and water, talk to your family about how you're going to reunite and communicate if you're separated. These are the things you have to think about with an event like this and you have to think about them before it happens."

In the event of an earthquake, Roddey said the best method of protection is to drop down to the floor, take cover under a sturdy object and hold on until the shaking stops. He said it's also best to walk to higher ground and inland when a tsunami hits and resist the temptation of standing on the coast to watch the sudden rise and fall of the tide the sea level.

"It's how well we prepare that determines the quality of life we have after these great events," he said. "If we prepare, then we're not a victim."

Friday, May 6, 2011

Earthquakes and Tsunamis 101 - When at the beach...

[Excerpt from Cascadia's Fault] Bottom line: if you’re on a beach and the ground starts shaking—and especially if that shaking lasts more than one minute—it’s probably a subduction earthquake and there probably will be a tsunami. The shaking is all the warning you’re going to get. Head for higher ground immediately and don’t wait for any official notification.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Earthquakes 101 - Understanding Magnitude

A moderate earthquake is defined as magnitude 5.0 to 5.9; strong is 6.0 to 6.9; major is 7.0 to 7.9; and a great earthquake registers 8.0 or higher on the Richter scale. Because the scale is logarithmic, there is a tenfold increase in the amplitude of the shockwaves with each higher whole number on the scale. Some studies have estimated that this tenfold increase in the amplitude of the shockwaves would require thirty-two times more energy. So a magnitude 9 would generate thirty-two times more energy than a magnitude 8.