Sustainability should include seismic resilience
By Edward Wolf
Ten years ago this week, the Magnitude 6.8 Nisqually earthquake centered near Olympia, Washington sent seismic waves to rattle Portland with a reminder that we, too, live on shifting ground.
One year ago this week, a Magnitude 8.8 earthquake and tsunami struck Chile, killing nearly 500 people and carving billions of dollars from the country’s GDP. With a history of preparedness, the Chilean toll was tragic but manageable.
This week a Magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, causing deaths and toppling buildings in a city similar to Portland.
If a quake like Chile’s or New Zealand’s struck Oregon, where the first seismic building codes are less than two decades old, we could face the greatest human and economic catastrophe in our history.
Unfortunately, we can expect to shake like Chile. Oregon sits on the boundary of two tectonic plates, susceptible to the same type of subduction zone earthquake known to Chile, Sumatra, and other places along plate boundaries.
The most recent Magnitude 9 earthquake struck our Cascadia fault in January 1700, long before "the West was won" and comfortably outside our historical experience.
But that Big One was merely the latest of about 40 powerful earthquakes that have rattled our ground and shores over the past 10,000 years. Many of the intervals separating those past quakes are shorter than the 311 years elapsed since that mid-winter night in 1700 A.D.
The next Cascadia earthquake and tsunami is a classic “Black Swan,” in the sense popularized by author Nassim Taleb in his bestseller of that title. It is an outlier far beyond the bounds of our expectations. It will deliver extreme impact. In retrospect, we’ll wonder why it wasn’t predicted.
Edward Wolf is a Portland writer whose books for Ecotrust include Salmon Nation (1999, 2003) and Klamath Heartlands (2004). He is a contributing author to Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams, 2006; revised and updated 2011).
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