On the Cascadian Megadeathquake

I’d like to talk a little bit about that recent New Yorker piece about how screwed Seattle and Portland are going to be when the next earthquake along the Cascadian subduction zone hits. According to the article, seismologists predict an extended, magnitude ~9.0 earthquake that will extend from northern California to southern British Columbia. Stephen Peterson, my friendly neighborhood skeptic, has already written a pretty thorough point-by-point response to the piece, but I have a couple points to raise myself.

As someone who lived in the Pacific Northwest for a while, and as someone who is perpetually anxious about natural disasters, I have a passing familiarity with the looming specter of the Cascadian megadeathquake. I would like to note that one thing Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker article doesn’t mention is how widely estimates vary about the frequency of major quakes along the Cascadian subduction zone. Some geologists say we’re long overdue; others say we’re not really “due” for another eighty-something years; still more say it could be even longer. Geologist Audrey Dallimore, for instance, estimates that the “recurrence interval for large and megathrust earthquakes [is] about 500 years,” though intervals can range up to 1,000 years. Since the last major earthquake of this type occurred in 1700, there’s a good chance we might actually be okay for a while. Even Schulz’s article notes that the probability of a full-margin rupture occurring in the next fifty years is only about “one in ten.” Of course, this is masked by a sexy statement from a FEMA official that, in the (somewhat unlikely) event of a near-future Hell Quake, “everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” Visual depiction below:


Studies also provide varying accounts of which areas are most vulnerable. The New Yorker highlights two possible earthquake scenarios: the “big one” or the “very big one.” The former would affect mainly the southern part of the subduction zone (western Oregon, northwestern California), and the article kind of glosses over it. The very big one is, after all, much more interesting, because it would reach up to southern BC, it would probably score a full extra point on the Richter scale, and it would cause waaay more damage. The “very big one” is also much less likely than the “big one” (there’s a “one in three” chance of the “big one” happening within the next fifty years, compared to the “one in ten” figure for the “very big one”). As Chris Goldfinger, one of the geologists cited in the sensational article, has stated elsewhere: “The probability for an earthquake on the southern part of the fault is more than double that of the northern end.” So, by some geologists’ recent estimates, the next major Cascadian earthquake could actually be smaller and happen later than Schulz’s article would suggest.

That said, the megadeathquake could easily happen sooner rather than later, and it could be bigger rather than smaller, because earthquakes don’t exactly run on a schedule you could set your watch to. So let’s assume the worst, as many of those interviewed in the New Yorker piece do, and say that Hell Quake 9,000 is right around the corner. What does this mean? For one thing, we might want to attend to our crumbling infrastructure. Washington state recently saw a bridge collapse because a slightly-too-large truck drove over it, which doesn’t exactly bode well for other bridges in the state. The New Yorker piece estimates that fifteen of Portland’s seventeen bridges would collapse (although it’s unclear what the substantiating evidence for that claim is). On a related note, geologist Robert Sydnor fears that the megadeathquake could adversely affect skyscrapers from Sacramento to Vancouver. So building safety is another major issue. We’d also want to attend to railways, bus tunnels, waterfronts built with cheap fill, and the various other architectural and urban planning hazards that litter the Pacific Northwest. Additionally, as a recent Gizmodo article notes, an early earthquake warning system could potentially save millions of lives.

After the brief reflections above, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a predictable Marxian gripe. Substantial state action to fortify infrastructure and utilize state-of-the-art disaster preparedness mechanisms is practically inconceivable in the age of neoliberal economization. As Wendy Brown writes in Undoing the Demos, any substantial government spending project, like the one that would be necessary to ensure some degree of public safety in the event of a megadeathquake, can only ever be justified “in terms of its contribution to economic growth” (p. 25). To actually see much-needed safety measures implemented in the Pacific Northwest would probably require a high degree of mass mobilization or, at the very least, appropriately tailored rhetoric (e.g. “Boeing and Microsoft would definitely leave Washington state if the ‘very big’ earthquake hit!”) spouted by sufficiently well-dressed people in sufficiently high places. If we are to take the megadeathquake seriously, we should make it an expressly political issue.

In any case, the question of “what is to be done” is neglected by the Schulz article, as it is in virtually every sensationalist article about Hell Quake 9,000. Instead, we get a marvelously written piece of disaster erotica (disasterotica?). As much fun as articles like this are, it’d be nice if we could start following up the question “How screwed are we?” with another, more productive one: “How could we not be screwed?”


About Asher Wycoff

Left-wing blowhard who sometimes writes and draws things.
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