Although the Big One didn’t hit that day, I doubt I will forget the seconds following 10:54 a.m. on that not-so-tranquil Wednesday. I had just picked up the February issue of Audubon magazine at the University Bookstore when the shaking began. It started slowly and gently, as if a large truck was passing on University Way. As the seconds seemed to stretch longer and longer, however, the shaking became a rumbling and concrete walls, bookshelves, and windows swayed and rattled.

Despite the years of training I had as a child in Seattle, where we were all taught to crawl under our desks during an earthquake, I didn’t get under a doorway or heavy desk. Instead, I stood still, mesmerized by the undulating, out-of-focus structure. I don’t know why I didn’t move, but I had no fear that anything would collapse. Maybe I was just being naïve. I had been through a few small tremors and this was certainly the biggest one I had felt, but it just seemed that all would be okay.

An employee at the cash register closest to me broke my reverie when she yelled and ran and leapt into a co-worker’s arms. As the shaking continued, I noticed that other people were quickly moving toward the doors. I followed, but at a slow pace, more caught up in the realization that I was watching one of the greatest ideas in science, the theory of plate tectonics, come to life, than I was by getting out of what appeared to be a pretty safe building.

When I finally made it outside, I discovered that standing still was not an option; either my legs were wobbling or the ground continued to shake.

By David B. Williams, Seattle geology writer and author

Earthquake Romance

I am a local Olympian who was born on 14th Ave and raised in Olympia, but my father took me to Korea for a year when I was 9 in 1997. After we returned he studied Education at St Martins for 3 years. After he graduated he took me on vacation in February 2001 to Oahu and on to Bangkok Thailand.

During the year before we went to Thailand, I fell in love with a 21 year old college student. She was a francophile, a lover of French culture. I was 12 and had never had any romantic relationship before. I would spend many late nights sneaking down to the living room and into her bedroom to converse with her, draw, read, and snuggle. At some point in time after several months, my father discovered that I was doing this and made it clear that he thought this to be wrong, but blamed her for the behavior, while I was a boy experiencing hormones for the first time. I must commend my father for not evicting her from the house despite his vehement distaste for our age difference.

To the point of the Nisqually earthquake. I left for Bangkok and I became separated from her, and the first week we were there I was given the opportunity to use the internet on the tourist block in the middle of the city, where we were staying. While I was sending an email to the woman I was infatuated with, in a hot cafe, my dad told me that there had been an earthquake of epic proportions in the very town I had been born in, at one of the very few times that I was not there! I learned that Earth Magic, a gem shop that I had spent many hours as a 6 year old “Ruler of the universe” had been severely damaged, among many other buildings. It was only months later when I came back that I realized how much damage had been caused, when they made plans to rebuild the 4th Ave bridge.

For about a month after we returned, I would spend many late nights sneaking across the damaged bridge to visit with my illicit lover who still lived on the west side, in a new house. While the Quake did not directly affect me, it brings many vivid memories to my consciousness.

By Petra Arcania

Seasoned Quake Lover

I moved to the NW from California in 2000 and was working in North Seattle when the Nisqually earthquake rocked the region. We were remodeling a mansion just a few doors down from the Boeing family mansion, which we were obliged to refer to obliquely as, “North Seattle Residence,” or “NSR.”

I was on my knees, painting in the kitchen when the earth began to roll. Intuitively, I shot up and went to the door to make it outside. As soon as I opened the door, I remembered the scaffolding erected just outside, so I looked up to see if anything was falling, then took the chance and shot across the little courtyard into open territory. I know this goes against the admonitions of drop and cover etc., but I’m from California and we are licentious about many things, including stop signs.

Besides the assembled and awed crowd, I noticed the property’s pond acted like one of those contrived wave pools. Never saw the action of an earthquake on water before. The Nisqually quake was unlike any I’d experienced. Unlike the severe and relentless jagged jolts of So-Cal earthquakes, this one was deep and wave-like, almost lulling and luxurious. Truth be told, I really enjoyed it.

A comedic moments: In one of the jobsite’s honeybuckets was a Samoan workman. He yelled, threateningly, “Quit That! Quit That!” Thinking his friends were goofing on him.

Later, a paint rep came and told us that when the earthquake struck, he was stuck on the Alaska Viaduct. Traveling North, he was safely on the top of the double-decker highway, yet he watched in horror as the crane and operator swayed helplessly at the site of the (then future) CenturyLink field. As far as I know, the crane and operator made it alright.

When I was 4, during the Sylmar Earthquake (1971), my father told me he swept me up and that I immediately lectured him, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” I’d learned this from the Margarine commercials.

Hey, as long as we live, we make light or see the light in situations.

By Masa Vestuto

I was down in Capitol Hill. A few stories I heard:

Like your friend, my neighbor said it felt like some unseen hand tipping her chair – except it was a cast-iron tub. She was taking a bath, and she said she was trying to remember what the quake preparedness said to do in that situation! (apparently decided it was “Throw on your robe BEFORE you run screaming from the apt, then rinse the shampoo…”)

My coworker was living in Pioneer Square, and she said as she ran down all the stairs, the giant crack was zigzagging up the bricks as she ran down. That’s why some people were crying in the street down there… sheer relief.

Someone working up on First Hill looked out the window, and saw the building towers four blocks away rise above the other buildings – and subside – then the church steeple three blocks away rose and fell – and then the tower of Providence Hospital one block away – !

My brother saw the wave rippling down the street. I missed it – I was too busy watching out for the telephone poles, which were all spinning crazily like tops about to fall…

By “Izzit Not”

I grew up on the Olympic Peninsula. When I was small, we lived in a double wide mobile home. There was a period when we were regularly having earthquakes that we could feel (and occasionally see). I remember crying each time one hit – and my mother explaining how we can keep safe during them. After one notable one (I’d guess around a 5.0), my mother asked me why I was so afraid of earthquakes. “Because,” I replied, “I know if the house breaks all of the spiders from the attic are going to fall on me.” It was at that point that we realized that I was really afraid of spiders, and not earthquakes. At that point, I actually became very interested in earthquakes, tectonics, geology, etc. We live in an area rich for study of all those fields. Following area seismology became something of a hobby of mine – and still is to this day.

During my freshman year in high school (2000-2001), our pep band got to travel with our boys basketball team to the state tournament at the Tacoma Dome. After the tournament was over, we went over to the Safeway area on 6th Ave in Tacoma to get some food before making the long drive back to the north Olympic Peninsula. My friend Ryan (a girl) and I had gotten Jo-Jo’s from the deli, while Michelle and Larissa got cookies and funfetti frosting. We regrouped at the drink aisle. As we stood there, debating what type of Sobe to get, the ground began to shake. Because we were on an aisle full of glass bottles, the sound was similar to that of the terrible neighbor that takes their glass recycling out at 1 am on a Tuesday.

Now, Ryan was not, is not, and never will be the brightest person out there. Immediately upon feeling the shaking ground she throws her hands up in an exasperated fashion and yells, “WILL SOMEBODY STOP SHAKING THE STORE!” At this point, Michelle starts screaming and pulls Larissa to the ground as they ducked and covered. At this point, I chime in to quell the teenage girl freakout and say, “Guys. We’re having an earthquake. Chill.” No sooner had the words escaped my lips than a Safeway employee comes bolting up from the back of the store screaming, “GET OUT OF THE STORE!! GET OUT OF THE STORE!!”

Michelle and Larissa ran out with the employee. Ryan and I looked at each other, not wanting to shoplift, put our items on the floor and casually walked out. In the parking lot we tried to jump the undulating asphalt – but the wavelength was too great. I remember looking behind me and seeing the school buses bounce off the ground – seeing a good deal of space between the ground and the tires. I remember wondering when it was going to stop – enjoying the sensation – being awestruck by the power.

The next earthquake I felt after that was while I was living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti – it was not the utterly devastating one in 2010 – but a smaller 5.? that struck around 2005. I remember the sound of a ravine side collapsing taking a number of shanty homes and people with it.

Earthquakes still fascinate me – but I am absolutely not in denial of their sheer power. I currently live very close to the Denny regrade, a few blocks above I-5. I question the solidity of the ground beneath me. I keep my three days’ supply of water and first aid stuff easily accessible – but I wonder what good it will do me if my building collapses. While on one hand, I’d say I’m not exactly afraid of “the big one” – I should say in most arenas of life, I do not live in fear of it. However, I do have this twinge of fear that it’s going to strike when I’m not wearing any pants. Again – much like the spiders – I think this says much more about my fear of being exposed than my fear of earthquakes.

That is the end of my story – but I will tack on two abridged stories that I’ve heard in “Remember the Nisqually quake?” conversations.

My friend Steve installs AVL systems. He was performing regular upkeep on the Key Arena jumbotron that day – and he recounted to me that this multi-ton jumbotron (that despite being hung on a pulley/chain system DOES NOT MOVE) was swaying about a foot in any direction.

I’ve also heard from a woman who was working in the upper portion of the Columbia Tower that, “We hardly felt it at all – but the building let out a deep groan.”

That’s all I have to say about that.

By Kim Merrikin

Rippling Earth

Hard to believe the earthquake was ten years ago already. I was at work, mere steps away from my desk and I remember how quickly the shock turned to instinct as everyone took shelter at the nearest spot possible. I was under the doorframe of an office on the second floor at a business that doesn’t deserve mention. We were located less than a quarter mile from the corner of alcohol mecca – both the Columbia and Chateau Ste. Michelle wineries and Red Hook Brewery were an easy walk away.

Outside the window of the office was one of the few remaining vacant fields in the area, and I remember seeing it ripple like an ocean wave and feeling that uneasy sensation a fraction of a second later. The whole building was in flux for an eternity that lasted seconds. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since, but the threat of the big one was embedded in anyone who grew up in the Puget Sound. I remember it being the day after near riots in Pioneer Square and it seemed like penance for that event down there when you saw the damage. My fiancee was downtown in the Washington Mutual Tower and vividly remembers the whole building swaying back and forth for what seemed like the entire day.

By Chad Biggs (This story was first posted on Intersect.com 10 years after the Nisqually quake)

This is the second of two posts on this blog that consist of asking Austin Elliott, who’s working on a Ph.D in geology at UC-Davis focused on seismology, a few questions about the nature of earthquakes in the Northwest and California and the general science of seismology. (Part one is Living With Earthquakes on the West Coast.) Austin also has a blog, The Trembling Earth, which is connected to his Ph.D work and looks at various topics in the earthquake field. In this post, Austin gives some details on the nature of seismology, new developments in the field (including early warning systems for earthquakes), and how being a seismologist changes his perspective on earthquake risks.

What are the biggest new or ongoing developments in seismology research since you started studying the subject? Is it analyzing the Tohoku quake?

We have had to radically shift existing paradigms about how earthquakes happen and how big they can be. Many of them come as a surprise to us because we’ve made insufficient assumptions about how individual faults interact, or how prior earthquakes on a single fault have changed the stress state to promote or inhibit subsequent earthquakes, as in the case of Tohoku. The earthquake rupture process is hugely complicated, and each quake is quite unique in its source process, relieving stress on one fault, loading stress onto another, jumping from one crack and continuing on another. Increasing volumes of seismograph data afford us increasingly detailed views of how an earthquake evolves, and they’re nothing like the simple breaks you learn about in your intro textbook.

I can’t list modern developments in seismology without mentioning Earthquake Early Warning. Systems that alert citizens of impending shaking are already operational in Japan and Mexico, and in the U.S. there has just been a huge push (read: influx of funding) to develop our own system. Conceptually this is as close as we can get to “predicting” earthquakes: knowing one is in progress and warning people who are far enough away and still have time to protect themselves. Our capabilities are there, but in practice we lag Japan and Mexico because we don’t have enough seismometers in the right places, and, ironically, we have barely enough earthquakes to run robust trials of the system. On top of that, we’ve built big dense cities directly on top of major fault lines, meaning in many places there would be no time for warning. There are still enough hypothetically damaging quakes that could happen far enough from population centers that the system is worthwhile, and you’ll be seeing and hearing much more about it in the coming years.

The other big thing that’s developing–seismologically speaking–is global social awareness of quake risk, and remarkable preventative/preparatory action. I think the internet is a huge driver of this awareness since more people than ever before are exposed to stories and imagery from earthquakes. In past centuries earthquakes were the things of distant legend, or rare occurrence, but now everyone the world over has witnessed their destruction. This is huge, because the primary problem with earthquake preparedness is how remote people consider their own risk.

How does seismology impact your day-to-day apprehension and awareness of earthquakes? Are you more or less nervous about them as a result of knowing more about how and how often they happen? For example, after Japan’s earthquake and the SE Asia Boxing Day earthquake in 2004, did you have a lot of foreboding about the destruction the following tsunamis would do?

I would say my understanding of seismology makes me immensely more attuned to the reality of earthquake risks than the average person. I think the biggest thing people fail to realize is the inevitability of earthquakes. Fault lines exist because the Earth’s crust has been jostling and grinding for hundreds of millions of years. The San Andreas Fault alone has accommodated the Pacific Plate sliding over 350 miles north past North America, and this of course will continue for the foreseeable geological future. If each big earthquake (a la 1906) stems from fault slip of 10-20 feet, this means the San Andreas has accommodated something like 150,000 earthquakes of that size in its history. That just floors me, and that doesn’t include damaging quakes that stem from subsidiary faults like the Hayward and the San Jacinto, or the myriad thrust faults terrorizing Los Angeles. Relatively to a human generational timescale, the error bars are large on when any given fault will slip to produce an earthquake, but the faults most certainly will slip, and we will most certainly have no warning*. The universal observation about earthquakes is that they always take a populace by surprise. You won’t know until it’s too late that it’s the day of The Big One, and they’ll most certainly happen in our future, just like they’ve happened to every generation in the past.

*Except for the ~10-20 seconds afforded by an early-warning system that’s triggered once a big quake starts.

My impression is that seismology, even more than most sciences, is a very data-hungry field. In the Northwest, the PNSN seems to have seismometers all over the place, including a lot of people’s homes. Is the basic goal in seismology to get as much data as you can about earthquakes and stresses that are building underground, and then find patterns in that data that tell you about how often, where, and why (maybe even when) earthquakes happen?

This question has hints of earthquake prediction, which I’m just gonna nip in the bud. One very minor component of seismology is detecting precursory signals, but decades of effort on that front have proved generally fruitless. There’s a fantastic review of the history of earthquake prediction in the book Predicting the Unpredictable by Susan Hough, if you’re interested in that.

You’re right though that seismology is a supremely data-hungry field. Seismology per se–the mathematical analysis of seismic signals–has two broad goals: understanding why earthquakes happen by painting detailed pictures of how they happen, and understanding what effects earthquakes may have through interaction of seismic waves with subterranean features, for example the hard bedrock edge of a sedimentary basin, which reflects seismic waves like the concrete wall of a pool does water. These goals are most often characterized as different approaches to the mathematical problem: to understand the earthquake source you have to piece together from multiple seismic recordings what the original pattern of seismic waves radiated from the fault was, making some assumptions about how they travelled to each station. To understand the effects of subterranean features you have to work out how those radiated waves were modified as they traveled from their source on the fault to your seismometer–or your house–making some assumptions about their original form.

Both of these approaches are immensely aided by more data. The Tohoku earthquake is a perfect example. Japan’s network of seismic measuring instruments (seismometers, accelerometers, GPS…) surpasses the quality and density of any other country’s, and so it captured a huge earthquake with more detail than ever in history. In the same way a musical performance sounds better if you mic all the instruments and not just one, an earthquake is far better represented with a huge suite of recording devices.

The other goals you mention–finding patterns that tell you how often and where earthquakes happen–are addressed by related fields that aren’t technically “seismology.” Geologic investigations of disrupted, deformed, and offset rocks constitute structural geology and can focus on a specific record of earthquakes that happened in the past–”paleoseismology.” Geodesy is measurement of the location and velocity of Earth’s surface, and is routinely conducted using GPS to assess the potential for earthquakes due to increasing strain around faults. One might claim that an ultimate goal of all of these fields (collectively, I’ll call them earthquake science) is to understand, model, and “predict” the occurrence of earthquakes from the evolving stresses that lead to them all the way to the detailed behavior of that patch of ground the new hospital sits on when it’s subjected to shaking from a nearby quake.

This is the first of two posts on this blog that consist of asking Austin Elliott, who’s working on a Ph.D in geology at UC-Davis focused on seismology, a few questions about the nature of earthquakes in the Northwest and California and the general science of seismology. (Part two is The Work of Seismology: Explaining a Few Issues and Changes in the State of the Art.) Austin also has a blog, The Trembling Earth, which is connected to his Ph.D work and looks at various topics in the earthquake field. In this post, Austin explains current thinking about subduction zone risks along the West Coast and the overall earthquake risk for the three coastal states.

What’s your sense of how a subduction zone quake would develop off the Northwest coast? Will the whole Juan de Fuca fault unzip, from Northern California up to B.C., or will only segments of it move?

There’s been a lot of research about this lately, ever since the recognition around a decade ago that the Cascadia subduction zone has produced these monster earthquakes routinely. Some theoretical models suggest that the quakes alternate in length from half-subduction-zone to full-subduction-zone. The possibility of a Cascadia rupture inducing rupture of the northern San Andreas fault–apocalyptic as that scenario may sound–has been seriously discussed by seismologists, and existing data about the timing of past earthquakes can’t rule it out. I view such a scenario as plausible but unlikely. However, I take a rather dire view of earthquake potential: knowing that an earthquake of a certain nature has happened in the past is the best evidence we have that it will probably happen again in the future. I don’t know whether the Cascadia megathrust will slip in parts or as a whole, but it’s interesting and sobering to consider which would be worse: a single magnitude 9 earthquake that’s felt from San Francisco to Vancouver, or a months- to decades long series of magnitude 8s up and down the U.S. west coast.

Why does the subduction zone disappear along most of the California coast, only to reappear off the Mexican coast and continue down along Chile’s coast?

This is a great question, with a relatively straight-forward answer. Have a look at this figure of global tectonic plates as a guide. The tectonic plate boundary in California separates the North American (green) and Pacific (beige) Plates, which are sliding past each other like ships passing in the night, only with more crumpling and earthquakes, Pacific to the northwest, North America to the southeast. To the north and south of California, a different plate (or rather, remnants of a different plate, which have now been named individual plates, and are colored blue) is squeezed between the Pacific and North American plates. These blue plates are moving toward North America, diving beneath it in subduction. The portion of that intervening plate that used to occupy the coast of California has long since been swallowed by the subduction zone, and what’s left of it to the north (the Juan de Fuca plate) doesn’t have much time left… geologically, as you can tell from its measly proportions on this map.

On the whole, how do you compare the earthquake threat in Northern California to the earthquake threat in Oregon and Washington? In terms of both severity and what types of earthquakes happen in the two regions.

Another good question, since the difference in the type of plate boundary leads to a dramatic difference in the size, frequency, and relative locations of earthquakes that happen along the west coast. In general I consider California’s earthquake risk to be much more acute, and much more lethal. The Pacific Northwest can expect to see infrequent, very large earthquakes like Japan’s, with minutes and minutes of heavy shaking and a dangerous tsunami. However, as in Japan, the earthquake source will largely be offshore, making it intrinsically more distant from the population than the quakes that any of California’s densely inhabited faults could produce. The shaking from a Cascadia megaquake will reach farther and last longer than a strike-slip quake in California, but dampening with distance will be a mitigating factor in any death toll, and the low frequency of the waves will spare people’s homes heavy structural damage. In California’s big cities, however, the shaking from a local earthquake–even one of modest size–will be very severe because the cities lie literally atop the state’s most active fault lines. This presents a real hazard of extreme ground motion and is likely to cause heavy structural damage to buildings of all sizes throughout the cities, much like we’ve seen in Christchurch, New Zealand over the past year. I consider this a much more dire situation, as the quake itself would likely induce a great deal more casualties than an offshore megaquake.

I’m making an exception to this blog’s focus on Northwest earthquakes because I recently did an email discussion with Jay Feldman, who in 2005 wrote When the Mississippi Ran Backwards, a book about the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812, and the Anglo and Indian cultures impacted by the quakes. With the 200th anniversary of the first of the quakes upon us, I wanted to mark the occasion by posting the exchange. With no further ado, here it is:

What was the impetus for writing the book? Were you more interested in the New Madrid earthquakes, or in Chief Tecumseh, the Indian tribes, and the culture in which the quakes happened?

I was most interested in the social and political context in which the earthquakes took place. I was initially struck by the confluence of forces and events around the quakes and the historical threads they represented. What I found most compelling was that events of 200 years ago were infused with issues that still resonate today – expansion, conquest, violence, corruption, greed, race relations, environmental degradation.

It sounds like the mindset about earthquakes back then was primitive: no one had any real idea of what was happening, and so they grasped for any explanation that seemed to make sense. Are we, in the masses, much more sophisticated now? I think of the radiation scare after Japan’s March 11 earthquake, when people in the U.S. didn’t seem to grasp how diluted any radiation cloud would be by the time it crossed the Pacific.

Earthquakes were a known factor at that time, though, of course, not everybody knew about them. As far as the level of sophistication compared to today, even among the general population, I’d have to say we’re much more informed. We may not know everything, but we certainly know more than most people did in the early 19th century.

Do you think that many people who live around, say Memphis or St. Louis or Little Rock, know about the earthquakes that happened 200 years ago, and are aware of the risk of another large quake? For example, do locals know where the sand blows in Arkansas and Missouri came from?

Many people in the area know about both the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes and the likelihood of future quakes, especially after Iben Browning’s prediction that another NM earthquake would strike on Dec. 3, 1990. Locals who know about the sand blows also know of their origin.

Your account of the New Orleans steamboat’s journey through the post-quake destruction along the Mississippi has the feel of reportage, almost like soldiers walking through Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August 1945. How did you find out about that journey and go about describing it?

I started with a book called “Mr. Roosevelt’s Steamboat,” by Mary Ellen Dohan, which was somewhat helpful, especially in pointing me toward other sources. One of the most valuable of those was J. H. B. Latrobe’s “The First Steamboat Voyage on the Western Waters,” a short but detailed 1871 account. I also managed to get ahold of a reproduction copy of Zadok Cramer’s “The Navigator,” which was an indispensable contemporary guidebook to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It was the volume that everybody who was planning a trip bought before embarking.

The book describes many dramas surrounding the New Madrid quakes-the slave murder by two of Jefferson’s nephews, the war of 1812, Tecumseh predicting an impending disaster-as well as the terrors associated with the quakes themselves. What do you think was the most memorable and/or important story that emerged from the quakes?

I think they’re all memorable and significant in their own way, but to me, the most profound story in the book is Tecumseh’s because it is emblematic of the whole struggle of Native Americans for survival. I think Tecumseh is one of the great leaders in American history, and I believe his story should be taught in history classes right along with those of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Finally, how much of an impact did the New Madrid earthquakes have on the history of the U.S.?

Directly, not a great deal. But indirectly, it affected the course of the War of 1812 and arguably hastened the end of Native American resistance in the Southeast.

These images come from the Seattle Times of March 28, 1964, and the Times of March 29. Here is the headline:

A map of the quake and damage to Port Alberni, B.C.:

Two notes on the tsunami and the earthquake’s energy release:

Some stories from Port Alberni about the tsunami’s arrival:

And on its arrival at the Washington coast:

A short capsule summary from the AP of the damage from the tsunami in various areas:

And finally, a note in the Seattle Times on how the tsunami affected local tides:


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