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Q&A about ‘The Really Big One’

Alongside fellow experts, UW professor John Vidale is working toward making the earthquake-prone Pacific Northwest a safer place.

Passion never rests

In response to the recent hype surrounding The New Yorker’s “The Really Big One” story and a call to action from Washington, D.C., to create an earthquake early warning system, UW professor John Vidale answers some of the Pacific Northwest’s most pressing questions.

John-Vidale-528x528John Vidale

Every second counts

In recent major earthquakes, half of all injuries were caused by falls and falling objects. An early warning system would give people crucial time to reconnoiter, move away from dangerous objects and take cover before strong shaking reaches them.

In seconds, surgeons could stop delicate procedures; trains and light rail systems could automatically slow down and stop; and office elevators could be programmed to stop at the nearest floor so people could exit — the life-saving examples are endless.

Q: The New Yorker’s July article “The Really Big One,” which claimed the Pacific Northwest was due for an earthquake that would destroy a sizable portion of the region, sparked a lot of conversation — and fear. What were your thoughts?

A: Largely it was a great article, and in a couple of details it was a terrible article. It was full of relevant facts, had some misperceptions, and gave some impressions perhaps it didn’t mean to give, but in the end it helped people realize there are a lot of things we should do now about earthquakes.

Q: After reading “The Really Big One,” it seems people were almost more fearful of a post-earthquake tsunami than an earthquake itself. Should they be?

A: The article unintentionally said “look out for the tsunamis, everything west of I-5 will be toast,” but really, those sentences shouldn’t be connected. If a magnitude 9 earthquake happens on the coast, Pacific coastal communities will be at risk of damage. However, if any of those waves travel through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Puget Sound, they would take hours to reach us, and we’d see them coming. Plus, they would be much smaller and weaker after traveling so far. So no, Seattle doesn’t have to worry about tsunamis from a magnitude 9.

Q: Tell us about your work with the M9 Project, and how it’s changing the way we prepare ourselves for the next big one.

A: The M9 Project looks at what the effect of a magnitude 9 earthquake would be on the Pacific Northwest, and it drives us to collaborate across disciplines at the UW. We’re working together to make sure that all of our emergency response systems are prepared and ready to go in the event of a quake, and that we’re being proactive in retrofitting the city for the next big one. The project brings together seismologists, scientists who know water waves, engineers who look at the buildings, and engineers specializing in landslides and liquefaction. Then we loop in state agencies, from emergency management to natural resources to public education. The M9 Project lets us work across campus and the city, and we’re making connections we’ll keep for the long term.

Q: One of the goals of a number of the projects you’re working on is an early earthquake warning system. Tell us about that.

A: We’re developing the capability to recognize the earthquake before the shaking arrives, which could be anywhere from nothing to a couple of minutes. An earthquake early warning system would give people crucial seconds to minutes to take action that could protect life and property from strong shaking. If the earthquake is right under our feet, we can’t warn people because as soon as we notice it, we get rocked. But if it’s a big earthquake on the coast or in California, it would take a few minutes for the crack to spread and rupture near us, giving us two, three or four minutes warning. The idea is that the warning system should tell you that in X amount of time, you’re going to get Y amount of shaking.

Q: What does the earthquake early warning system look like tangibly?

A: Cell phones, ideally — kind of like an Amber Alert, where your phone makes a characteristic tone and everyone knows that means there’s an earthquake. The trouble is that Amber Alerts take minutes to go through the system, so there are people working in California to try to get the FCC to approve and require communications that would work within seconds in the event of an earthquake. There’s also a request to make the signal automatic — right now it has to be manually activated by people. There are also sirens, broadcasts through TV stations, radio, even Sound Transit. Additionally, we’re working with UW Emergency to link it to the broadcast system around campus.

Q: Will you ever be able to predict an earthquake?

A: The best we can hope for is an indication of times when we’re at increased risk. For example, before the Japan magnitude 9 earthquake that killed 20,000 people in 2011, there were two days of very strange activity right where that earthquake started — a magnitude 7 earthquake, followed by something we call “slow earthquakes,” which are sort of like a regular earthquake only a thousand times slower. Now the Japanese scientists know what to look for and put out 150 stations on the seafloor because they want to see the slow earthquakes unfolding next time.

Q: What hurdles remain in making the early warning system available?

A: We have the technology now to provide accurate alerts for earthquakes up to about a magnitude 7, but the system must be fully funded to operate. Beyond that, additional funding investments are needed to provide accurate alerts for earthquakes that reach magnitude 9 or higher, and to deploy a network of underwater warning sensors off the Pacific coast that would better detect and measure offshore seismic activity, which also has the potential to result in dangerous tsunamis. These large earthquakes are a very real threat along the West coast and would begin offshore, as did the 2011 quake in Japan.

More about John Vidale

Vidale’s been interested in the earth and its inner workings since he was a young boy, thanks to his mother, a geologist. His longtime love for geology, math and physics brought him to Yale and Caltech for his undergraduate and graduate studies, respectively, followed by years as a researcher and professor across California before moving to Seattle.

Now, he’s nearing a decade at the UW, where he works with the state and federal government for public hazard mitigation and serves as Washington’s resident earthquake expert, where he’s tasked, among many other things, with collaborating with others to create an earthquake preparedness plan for at-risk areas — Seattle included.

Seeing the city take action based on our research really gives me a feeling that I’m not working on something that might one day benefit people, but that will have an immediate impact. It keeps the University more connected to the community because it’s not just ivory tower research.

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