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Doing the WaveWhen the tide turns, it turns for thee
by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
February 28, 2010

Well, now I understand why they call them “tidal waves”

Thanks to a live feed from KHON in Hawaii, we were able to watch as the tsunami from yesterday's massive earthquake in Chile reached Hilo Harbor. It was anti-climatic; the waves were smaller than feared, and there was no significant damage to the Hawaiian Islands or any of the rim nations that were exposed.

But it was, for all of that, a jaw dropping site. The KHON camera was on a little bluff, about fifty feet above the high tide mark, and focused on a tiny island on the south shore of Hilo Bay, about 150 feet wide and 300 feet long, with three structures on it, and connected to shore by a pedestrian walkway. The channel of water between the little islet and shore was perhaps 75 feet wide and maybe five feet deep at high tide. The channel itself was normally virtually still, protected from waves and current, and affected only by the slow twice-a-day rhythm of the tides. Even those were minor—one of the TV commentators mentions that the normal tidal variation was about three feet.

The first pulse of the tsunami was fashionably late, and imperceptible to the watching television camera. The swell was about 10cm, or four inches.

But then, quietly, it became more dramatic. Three more larger swells came in, about fifteen minutes apart, and we watched, fascinated, as the water slowly rose and fell. It was like watching the tides in stop-motion film. Part of the fascination lay in not knowing how high the water might go. Would the little island be inundated? (It wasn't). But part was the inexorable rise and fall, so much like the tides.

With one exception. There were reefs at the end of the little channel, and the channel itself turned, briefly, into a very short salt-water river. As the water rushed back and forth, it became white water, and that placid little channel became, briefly, like a mountain stream during snow melt. The water lifted to the lip of the island, the high tide mark, and dropped in minutes to expose the reefs and the mud flats that made up the bottom of the channel.

There are places, like Canada's Bay of Fundy, where the tides are steep enough to cause white water. But they are rare, and tourist attractions because they are so odd.

Everyone was relieved at how small and well-behaved the tsunamis were. Nobody got flooded, cities weren't destroyed, Hilo Bay wasn't reduced to a mud flat with a glinting in the sun subsiding like the life in the eyes of the trapped and suffocating fish, limned by a beautiful and doomed shore. Tokyo lives on to be a backdrop to rubber monsters and anime series.

For all the lack of cinematic drama, it was an impressive demonstration of the incredible power an earthquake can have. At 8.8, yesterday's earthquake immediately off the short of Chile was the fifth-largest in recorded history. It was about 950 times more powerful than the earthquake that flattened Port-au-Prince, and 1,500 times more powerful than the biggest earthquake I ever experienced in my years in Southern California. And nearly 40 years later, I still have vivid memories of that little quake, the Sylmar Earthquake.

I watched the images from Chile itself and gained a new respect for Chile. The damage looked more like Northridge than Port-au-Prince.

When American media covers a catastrophe like Port-au-Prince, there's a certain smugness. America, we are told, has good building codes and a general lack of corruption, which means that the horror that made a moderate earthquake into a charnel house in Haiti couldn't happen here. Some Americans even openly sneered at Haiti, saying they brought it on themselves. It's an attitude of supreme, if unwitting hypocrisy, given the role of America historically in Haitian economic affairs. They aren't just poor because they're poor, and they didn't have shoddy building codes because that's what they chose.

That smugness was absent yesterday. Perhaps it's because the first reporters there were in the earthquake itself and had a first hand appreciation for the power of the quake. In one image shown widely, a bloc of apartments is literally ripped in half by the quake, but both halves are still standing , which allowed the vast majority of residents to get out safely.

To be sure, the shaking in Chile wasn't over 900 times as strong as what hit Port-au-Prince. Not only were the major cities hundreds of miles from the epicenter, but it was also a deep fracture, some 22 miles down, compared to a shallow 8 miles for poor Haiti.

But it was still one hell of a big earthquake, no matter how you slice it, and the damage in Chile, while extensive, is a testament to the building codes and just plain common sense with which Chileans approached the volatility of their long, narrow land.

The Chilean people themselves reacted splendidly. Even as the ground was shaking, cameras recorded fright, but no panic. People moved swiftly to get out of harm's way, and then immediately began helping those who didn't make it.

Thirty-six hours later, and the official death toll is still only 300, and quite possibly won't be over 1,000. Nearly two million people are homeless, and the images show why; in the cities, at least, the major apartment complexes took damage enough that they will have to be bulldozed, but they remained standing, even if leaning at a thirty degree angle, or, as mention, literally ripped in half.

Which begs the question: would an American city do as well? In recent years, there have only been two moderate earthquakes in California to go by, the Northridge quake in LA in 1994, and the Loma Prieta quake in 1989. We didn't do all that well, given that both quakes were smaller (6.7 and 6.9 respectively) than the Port-au-Prince quake. The death toll wasn't that high, but the property damage was a lot worse than anyone expected. Even Kobe, which has the ultra-strict building codes that the Japanese have had since the end of the war, lost 5,500 people and had nearly half a trillion dollars in damage from a 6.9 earthquake.

How would Los Angeles and San Francisco do if they had an 8.8 earthquake?

Well, fortunately, we probably won't need to find out, in all likelihood. For all the reputation the area has for earthquakes, California isn't really at serious risk for a monster like the one that hit Chile. They could get an 8.0, which would be about 40 times stronger than Northridge but at least 28 times less severe than what an 8.8 would pack. The Bay Area and LA are unlikely to see anything bigger than about 7.6, although there is a possibility. Even a 7.6 could kill thousands and cause trillions in damage.

Unfortunately, there is a part of the country that not only can expect an earthquake as big as what hit Chile, but should. And truth in advertising: I'm living in that part of the country.

The Chile quake was what is called a “megathrust” earthquake, a type that occurs only in subduction zones, where one crustal plate is blodging under another. Chile, as a result, is one of the most seismically active areas on earth, and had the largest earthquake ever recorded, a 9.5 monster, in 1960.

For the US and Canada, the Cascadia subduction zone is the loaded gun pointed at our heads. It is where the Juan de Fuca plate slides under the North American plate, a configuration identical to the subduction zone alongside Chile.

We know that on the evening of January 26th, 1700, an earthquake estimated at between 8.7 and 9.2 occurred there. We know that, not because the local tribes remembered it (although they most certainly did!), but because the next day, much of Tokyo washed away in a giant tsunami that dwarfed the 2004 event. We also know that the top part of the adjoining subduction zone to the north caused the 9.2 Good Friday earthquake in 1964 in Alaska. It, too, was a megathrust quake, and as a rule, all earthquakes above about 8.4 are of that type.

The major cities at risk are Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC., along, of course, with everyone else in the region, stretching from about Santa Rosa on the south end to the Aleutian Islands at the other.

So I'm sitting here at ground zero, 310 years, one month, and two days later, and wondering when the other shoe will drop. Mount Shasta, sitting peacefully under a blanket of snow, is a silent testimony to the power of the subduction zone, which caused Mount Shasta – and all the other volcanoes in the Cascade Range – to happen in the first place.

About 18 months ago, there was an unnerving swarm of earthquakes out beyond the subduction zone in the Pacific Plate. There were about 600 discrete earthquakes, and they didn't follow any known pattern to earthquake swarms. Usually, there's a main earthquake, followed by a generally diminishing series of aftershocks. In this case, the quakes were of a like intensity, and ended as mysteriously as they began, centered in the Pacific plate, where earthquakes shouldn't be happening.

Seismologists said it sounding like grinding more than like slippage.

By itself, it was harmless. No tsunamis, and nobody onshore even felt a thing.

But given the nature of the subduction zone, and the damage it can do, it was as ominous as the sound of a gun being cocked.

Chile got hammered, and did much better than people might have reasonably hoped for. Although with two million people displaced, they face a monumental task.

When our turn comes – and it will – will we do as well?

Posted: March 5, 2010

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