A Seattle earthquake could wipe out everything west of Interstate 5

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…at least according to a recent New Yorker article that resulted in a predictable level of panic by prophetic doom merchants in the Pacific Northwest. That’s likely because many of us skim longer articles, and this one was very, very long. With yarns like, “By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable,” it’s easy to see why so many readers were scared into believing the slap dash claims made by the article. But could a Seattle earthquake really render such havoc?

Well, it’s complicated.

After Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami led to the deaths of over 15,000 people (the Fukushima reactor is still leaking radioactive material into the ocean–something likely more worthwhile for us to spend our time wondering about and probably a whole lot scarier), it’s easy to see why people might be worried about a Seattle earthquake since the coastal city rests near tectonic plates that can potentially unleash a lot of chaos if they were to release all their energy at once.

As it turns out, this is not going to happen in Seattle anytime soon:

In fact, The New Yorker’s article didn’t seem too concerned about being ambiguous about the imminence of a killer tsunami after an overdue quake:

Lax safety policies guarantee that many people inside the inundation zone will not get out. Twenty-two per cent of Oregon’s coastal population is sixty-five or older. Twenty-nine per cent of the state’s population is disabled, and that figure rises in many coastal counties…Its height will vary with the contours of the coast, from twenty feet to more than a hundred feet. It will not look like a Hokusai-style wave, rising up from the surface of the sea and breaking from above. It will look like the whole ocean, elevated, overtaking land.

What kind of damage is a Seattle earthquake really capable of causing?

A lot.

According to scientists quick to respond to The New Yorker’s article, though, the threats of catastrophic damage and 100-foot tsunamis are grossly exaggerated by the article’s writer. University of Washington Seismologist Bill Steele suggests people might have to survive on their own for up to a week, and should have emergency plans in the event of any natural disaster.

If a magnitude 8.7 or greater earthquake were to strike off the coast of Seattle, then there would be severe damage in pockets within the city, but a Seattle earthquake would not flatten the entire city.

And such that doesn’t mean 13,000 people will die.

Steele does caution, however, that there is some truth to the article. The chance of a Seattle earthquake measuring 9.0 or higher is roughly 15% over the next 50 years, and the science detailed in the New Yorker article is basically accurate.

The chances of the worst-case scenario actually happening? Not nearly as high.

As always, prepare for the worst–but don’t waste your time and energy worrying about something that probably won’t happen.

About Author

Jeff is a self-proclaimed pragmatic futurist; that is, he has high hopes for absurd life-altering technologies which sound too good to be true, and probably are. Although he writes on a variety of subjects, his real passion is for technological innovation and the people who make it happen. By day, he enjoys fuzzy bunnies, kittens, puppies, roller coasters and a sardonic written word or two. By night, he's busy running memyselfandrobot.com, replaying a random Final Fantasy game, or pretending to be Batman. He currently resides in Upstate NY.

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