The July 2015 New Yorker article “The Really Big One,” by Kathryn Schulz, shook up the Pacific Northwest (PNW) more than any earthquake has since the Magnitude-6.8 Nisqually earthquake in 2001.  In the article’s most dooming statement, the head of the Cascadia FEMA division was quoted saying, “everything west of I-5 will be toast.” This assertion scared the living daylights out of PNW residents, creating a sense of terror and hopelessness that was the antithesis of what the article meant to do: to spur the region into preparing for this potentially devastating event.

Personally, as a strong believer in good science communication, I liked the article a lot.  It was well written, read like a good story, and the science was interesting and understandable.  In fact, as a graduate student in seismology, I was at first surprised that the article caused such uproar.   My familiarity with the Cascadia hazard numbed me to the shock many others experienced upon first learning the news that we do indeed get large, or as Seattle reporter Sandi Doughton calls them in her book [1], “Full Rip” earthquakes, here in the PNW.

What is the proper reaction to the article?  You probably should not go on living without batting an eye like I did, nor should you pack up your family and belongings and flee eastward.  The answer is preparation.  For the past month I have been attending talks in the UW Alumni Association’s Surviving Disaster: Natural Hazards & Resilient Communities lecture series.  Before each talk, when the dean of the College of the Environment, Lisa Graumlich, gives her typical introductory spiel, telling us to turn off our cell phones and reeling off the speaker’s credentials, one line catches my attention.  She says, “We want to focus on preparation to prevent hazards from becoming disasters.”

Each time she says that my head nods in agreement.  The looming “really big one”, or any other natural hazard, is not a disaster until it actually harms humans.  And though the Cascadia earthquake could happen tomorrow, it could also happen 200 years from now.  That means we have between 1 day and 200 years to prepare ourselves and our infrastructure to prevent as much damage, injury, and loss of life as possible.

Earthquake preparation is one of those daunting tasks, like vacuuming under the couch, that most of us put off from year to year.   I’m guilty of that too.  In fact, it was not until this year that I started filling empty milk and juice jugs with water and stowing them in my basement.  My roommate was more on top of it.  He has kept an entire shelf of canned refried beans stocked since we moved into our house 3 years ago.

There are many other steps you can take to prepare besides storing food and water.  Make an earthquake kit with a first aid kit, space blanket, flashlight, extra batteries, and hand-crank radio.  Strap down your water heater and remove heavy objects from high shelves.  Attend a local earthquake-preparedness or home-retrofit class.  Finally, make sure you have an out-of-region contact who friends and family can call to make sure you are okay in case the local cellular network goes down.  By taking the proper steps, you can be your own first responder.

One comforting idea that I have taken home from the Surviving Disaster: Natural Hazards & Resilient Communities lecture series is that people and communities are capable of doing amazing things to help each other during disasters.   Jeb Horne, a journalist from New Orleans, talked about how after Hurricane Katrina, individuals rowed around in their own boats, saving people from attics and rooftops, and how people from all over the United States traveled to the New Orleans area to volunteer in makeshift food kitchens.  Kate Starbird, a professor in the UW College of Engineering, explained that after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, people from all over the United States, many who had never been in contact with each other, banded together on social media to organize and relay important information and assist with the relief effort.  Starbird calls this response digital volunteerism and has studied it after other natural disasters such as the flooding in the Catskill Mountains after Hurricane Irene in 2011.  I believe that after the Cascadia earthquake communities in the PNW will come together and that any community relief efforts will only be amplified if we are more prepared.

I’ll leave you with a rather cheesy statement: don’t be scared, get prepared!  Also, believe in your local community; it will have your back.  Finally, if you are still feeling shaken from the New Yorker piece, read the author’s follow-up article responding to the outcry over the original.  It clarifies some of the more terrifying statements in her first and has some good tips on preparedness.   I liked it just as much as I liked the first one.

[1] By the way, Sandi Doughton’s book The Full Rip 9.0 is worth a read!


Unusual earthquake swarm south of Bend, OR

October 23, 2015

by Steve Malone

A somewhat unusual earthquake swarm started early on Oct 22, 2015 in an area about 65 km (40 miles) southwest of Bend, OR (25 km WSW of La Pine, OR). 36 events have been detected and located by the PNSN as of noon on Oct. 23, the largest only Magnitude 2.5. This ongoing swarm is in the same area that had similar swarms in 2001 and 2012 and is likely just the same sort of thing taking place again. For more details and updates....

How big was that earthquake?

September 24, 2015

by Steve Malone

Determining an earthquake's size seems to often result in different and inconsistent estimates. The "Magnitude" of an earthquake can be determined by several different methods, all of which should have some relationship to one another and, at least be consistent one earthquake to another. Unfortunately that's often not the case. PNSN seismologists spend lots of time estimating (measuring and calculating) earthquake magnitudes and end up discussing (arguing over) different techniques and complaining (whining) about inconsistencies and criticizing (belittling) certain results. Recently some effort is being made to try and refine (improve) our standard, routine ways of determining magnitude. We are starting to upgrade our published catalog with these "improved" magnitude estimates so you may see these estimates change from what was in the catalog before. Don't worry. The earthquakes have not changed, just our estimate of how big they are. For the gory details of how this is being done......

Summer rockfall time, yet again

August 21, 2015

by Steve Malone

With hot dry weather it is not surprising that the seismic records for volcano stations show lots of signals consistent with rockfall/avalanches and other exotic seismic events. In fact it is a bit of a surprise that we have not seen more and bigger such events this summer........ so far. Recent activity at Mount Rainier has included a debris flow (probably related to a jökulhlaup) and a moderate sized rockfall from high on the southwest side of the volcano. For some of the seismic details.....

Why earthquakes disappear

May 31, 2015

by Renate Hartog

Earthquakes have been appearing and disappearing from the U.S.G.S. webpages, this blog explains why.

PNW Earthquake Early Warning prototype goes live

February 18, 2015

by Steve Malone

Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) is now officially working for the Pacific Northwest (Washington and Oregon) in the same way it has in California for the past two years. It even got tested the first night in operations and worked...sort of. A workshop hosted by the PNSN at the University of Washington on Feb 17 introduced the topic and featured software to a group of about forty invited participants. For a few details on the workshop and the system's first live test......
The Seattle Seahawks' win over the Green Bay Packers in over time ended up so exciting that many of us serious scientists forgot to be serious and analyze the seismograms. Yikes! What a crazy ending. In fact, most of the game was seismically quiet (and disheartening for Seahawk fans), but the final half hour produced several seismic events that challenges the original "Beast Quake" for seismic supremacy. For our semi-scientific analysis......

Panther versus Seahawk Game Analysis

January 11, 2015

by Steve Malone

Both the PNSN experiment and the Seahawks were successful Saturday evening. Both got off to a slow start. The PNSN QuickShake display had several bad dropouts during the first half and at half-time the Seahawks were only ahead by four points. When working properly QuickShake provided us with "early Warning" of a successful play that would show up on TV a few seconds later. None of the signals compared to the size of those during the original "Beast Quake" of 2011 but some interesting patterns were seen. For more detailed analysis......
Last year the PNSN used the vibrations generated by enthusiastic Seahawk fans at CenturyLink Field to test instruments, data acquisition and web based displays. Some might say the seismic monitoring inspired fans to greater cheering resulting in the Seahawk's successful Super Bowl run. With new instruments recently acquired and improved data processing and display techniques developed we are again looking for somewhere to test them. With the Seahawks again in the playoffs with home field advantage why not watch/help them again? For the details.....

Canadian ETS morphing to Washington one?

November 18, 2014

by Steve Malone

Over two weeks of tremor in central Vancouver Island has been progressing southward. Though we don't know about the geodetic component we suspect that this represents a slip event that is propagating southward. Since a southern Vancouver Island-Northern Puget Sound ETS is due about now the question is will this current activity continue all the way to southern Puget Sound. For some details.....

Great ShakeOut, Great success!

October 16, 2014

by Angel Ling

Congratulations and thank you for your participation in the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drill! Hopefully it gave you a great opportunity to practice "Drop, Cover and Hold on", and review and update emergency preparedness plans and kits/supplies. Thanks again to make the Pacific Northwest safer. Read more to see what the Great Washington ShakeOut looks like at the PNSN!

The Great ShakeOut 2014 is Tomorrow!

October 15, 2014

by Angel Ling

Tomorrow is the Great Washington Shake Out 2014! Please join us in the World's largest Earthquake Drill at 10:16 a.m. on October 16. Read more...

Three Cascadia ETS events in past month??

September 4, 2014

by Steve Malone

Since Aug 10 there have been three parts of the Cascadia subduction zone with extended periods of near continuous tectonic tremor. Typically if tremor continues in a zone for more than 10 days then the geodesists can easily see an accompanying slow-slip event coincident with it. While tremor in the three zones has not been exactly synchronous it is somewhat unusual for this much of Cascadia to "light up" this strongly all together. For some of the details....

Is Mount St. Helens seismicity increasing?

July 29, 2014

by Steve Malone

Looking at the "Quakes near volcanoes" plot today shows that 87 earthquakes have been recorded at Mount St. Helens over the past 30 days. This is way above the average for the past many years. Is this significant? Actually, no. Its called a sampling artifact that gives the impression of increased activity. For the details......
Several days of very warm weather has resulted in a couple of large snow avalanches at Mount St Helens but apparently no unusually large ones at other volcanoes. The seismic network at Mount St. Helens is particularly good at picking up the shaking due to large snow avalanches. Two such events on the afternoon of May 14 got our attention. For copies of seismograms and photos......
A large explosion was reported in the early morning hours of April 25 in North Bend, WA. I reviewing the seismic records we find signals consistent with this report. For a preliminary report.....
PNSN instruments picked up the ground vibrations generated by the deadly Oso landslide.

Legacy web site content returns

March 17, 2014

by Steve Malone

Two years ago the PNSN web site changed format in a big way. New features and capabilities were added and the look and feel was greatly improved. But, many of the old popular pages were left behind. We have now converted many of these pages to generic documents that can be linked from the new pages but are still in the old format. For a summary of what we have now....

Ice avalanches on Cascade volcanoes

February 28, 2014

by Steve Malone

With the recent heavy snows in the mountains after a long, cold dry spell the Cascades could be primed for big snow avalanches. However, just in the past couple of days we have seen two big seismic sources that we interpret to be, at least initiated as ice avalanches at Mount Rainier and Glacier Peak. For some details and photos...... (and an update)

A New View On What's Shaking on the Cascade Volcanoes

February 26, 2014

by Jon Connolly

We have added a new interactive graphic to the PNSN home and volcano page that provides a quick summary of the latest Cascade volcanic seismicity. This graphic replaces a table view of the same data. We have strived to make the PNSN landing page a quick summary view of immediate information that allows a user to drill down for more info if desired. The table view for recent volcanic seismicity was a bit clumsy and fell short of this goal.

Seismic Spectrograms - A new way to look at wiggles

February 13, 2014

by Steve Malone

Many people are familiar with seismograms - charts showing vibrations from a seismograph over time - but far fewer know or understand spectrograms. Still, these plots showing the strength of seismic vibrations over time at different frequencies are very useful for seismic analysts once they have some experience with them. At the PNSN we have been using them for several years, particularly for volcano stations. Now we are providing them for anyone to look at. For an introduction......

The final football game analysis

January 19, 2014

by Steve Malone

The data and notes have been collected for our seismic recording of the NFC championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers and some analysis has been done. While too early yet for a definitive conclusion on all aspects of the data, we can report some interesting results and speculations. This blog will be added to as more analysis is completed. (By the way...The Seahawks won so on to the Super Bowl.) In the meantime for some interesting observations......

The Football Game Experiment Continues

January 14, 2014

by Steve Malone

During the Seattle Seahawk's-New Orelans Saints Divisional game of Jan 11, 2014 we experimented with adding seismic stations at the stadium, providing live seismogram feeds, near realtime seismograms and some interpretation of recorded events. Since the Seahawks won and will play again in CenturyLink Field, why stop now. We learned some things, are puzzled about some things and changed somethings and doing it again. For all the details......

Seismic Game Analysis

January 11, 2014

by Steve Malone

The PNSN, along with with many fans, took extra interest in yesterday's playoff game. With two extra seismic stations installed at the stadium seismologists watched the seismograms at the same time watching the game on TV. We now have some analysis of the wiggles and other observations on this multipart experiment. For all the details......

PNSN Earth-shaking Seahawks Experiment

January 8, 2014

by Jon Connolly

Here is the content of a press release PNSN issued today about the deployment of two strong motion sensors in CenturyLink Field. We will monitor the vibrations of the structure and ground produced by an excited and energized crowd of Seahawks fans during the playoff game against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday, 11 Jan., 2014. The experiment provides challenges at all turns, but we hope to learn something about how seismic waves are generated within a structure, how to sense them and transmit them in a very challenging environment for data telemetry, and how to process and present them to users in real time. We also hope the Hawks win (although a close game might produce more ground motion!). Go Hawks!