When will a major earthquake strike the West Coast?

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Aug., 2012 – There’s a 40 percent chance that an earthquake will strike the southern Cascadia Subduction Zone in the Pacific Northwest within the next 50 years, says a new study from Oregon State University (OSU) researchers. That earthquake could approach the intensity of the Tohoku quake that struck Japan in March 2011.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone runs from mid-Vancouver Island to Northern California.

The OSU study found that the southern area of the zone may be particularly vulnerable to a large earthquake, based on the recurrence frequency of quakes already witnessed.

“The southern margin of Cascadia has a much higher recurrence level for major earthquakes than the northern end and, frankly, it is overdue for a rupture,” said Chris Goldfinger, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and lead author of the study in a statement. “That doesn’t mean that an earthquake couldn’t strike first along the northern half, from Newport, Ore., to Vancouver Island.

The Goldfinger-led study took four years to complete and is based on 13 years of research. At 184 pages, it is the most comprehensive overview ever written of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a region off the Northwest coast where the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate is being subducted beneath the continent. Once thought to be a continuous fault line, Cascadia is now known to be at least partially segmented.

This segmentation is reflected in the region’s earthquake history, Goldfinger noted.

“Over the past 10,000 years, there have been 19 earthquakes that extended along most of the margin, stretching from southern Vancouver Island to the Oregon-California border,” Goldfinger noted. “These would typically be of a magnitude from about 8.7 to 9.2 – really huge earthquakes.

“We’ve also determined that there have been 22 additional earthquakes that involved just the southern end of the fault,” he added. “We are assuming that these are slightly smaller – more like 8.0 – but not necessarily. They were still very large earthquakes that if they happened today could have a devastating impact.”

The clock is ticking on when a major earthquake will next strike, said Jay Patton, an OSU doctoral student who is a co-author on the study.

“By the year 2060, if we have not had an earthquake, we will have exceeded 85 percent of all the known intervals of earthquake recurrence in 10,000 years,” Patton said. “The interval between earthquakes ranges from a few decades to thousands of years. But we already have exceeded about three-fourths of them.”

The last mega-earthquake to strike the Pacific Northwest occurred on Jan. 26, 1700. Researchers know this, Goldfinger said, because written records in Japan document how an ensuing tsunami destroyed that year’s rice crop stored in warehouses.

With the likelihood of a major earthquake and possible tsunami looming, coastal leaders and residents face the unenviable task of how to prepare for such events. Patrick Corcoran, a hazards outreach specialist with OSU’s Sea Grant Extension program, says West Coast residents need to align their behavior with this kind of research.

“Now that we understand our vulnerability to mega-quakes and tsunamis, we need to develop a culture that is prepared at a level commensurate with the risk,” Corcoran said. “Unlike Japan, which has frequent earthquakes and thus is more culturally prepared for them, we in the Pacific Northwest have not had a mega-quake since European settlement. And since we have no culture of earthquakes, we have no culture of preparedness.

“The research, though, is compelling,” he added. “It clearly shows that our region has a long history of these events, and the single most important thing we can do is begin ‘expecting’ a mega-quake, then we can’t help but start preparing for it.”

Read the full report online (PDF).