Scientists in the Field

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The Big One

By Elizabeth Rusch

No one ever thought the Pacific Northwest was due for an earthquake, let alone a catastrophic one. But geologists are transforming our understanding of the grave dangers the population in the region of Cascadia face–will there be a big one? And what can be done to save lives?

America’s Pacific Northwest can be an idyllic place to live—filled with endless beaches, lush forests, waterfalls, and glacier-capped volcanic peaks. Compared with California, just south but sharing many characteristics, it has relatively few earthquakes—only a handful each year that cause even moderately noticeable shaking. But a couple decades ago, scientists discovered a geological feature running along the Pacific Northwest coast that in other parts of the world regularly triggers massive earthquakes of 8.0 magnitude and higher. Were there once massive earthquakes in this part of the world? Geologists think, yes, there were. Now a small group of scientists are studying things that you might not think have anything to do with earthquakes—
marsh soil, ocean sediments, landslide debris, and ghost forests—and they have reason to believe that the Pacific Northwest is likely not as idyllic as it was once assumed. The population, in fact, is likely in grave danger of a massive earthquake at some point. What can be done? Can buildings be retrofitted to withstand the big one? Can a system such as ShakeAlert give people even thirty seconds of warning to protect themselves and their families? The big one can’t be stopped, but scientists are working tirelessly to learn as much as they can to prepare.

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