view counter

EarthquakesThe “Really Big One”: How a 9.0 Cascadia earthquake could play out

Published 26 October 2017

One of the worst nightmares for many Pacific Northwest residents is a huge earthquake along the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone, which would unleash damaging and likely deadly shaking in coastal Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and northern California. The last time this happened was in 1700, before seismic instruments were around to record the event. So what will happen when it ruptures next is largely unknown.

One of the worst nightmares for many Pacific Northwest residents is a huge earthquake along the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone, which would unleash damaging and likely deadly shaking in coastal Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and northern California.

The last time this happened was in 1700, before seismic instruments were around to record the event. So what will happen when it ruptures next is largely unknown.

A University of Washington research project, presented 24 October at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Seattle, simulates fifty different ways that a magnitude-9.0 earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone could unfold.

“There had been just a handful of detailed simulations of a magnitude-9 Cascadia earthquake, and it was hard to know if they were showing the full range,” said Erin Wirth, who led the project as a UW postdoctoral researcher in Earth and space sciences. “With just a few simulations you didn’t know if you were seeing a best-case, a worst-case or an average scenario. This project has really allowed us to be more confident in saying that we’re seeing the full range of possibilities.”

UW says that off the Oregon and Washington coast, the Juan de Fuca oceanic plate is slowly moving under the North American plate. Geological clues show that it last jolted and unleashed a major earthquake in 1700, and that it does so roughly once every 500 years. It could happen any day.

Wirth’s project ran simulations using different combinations for three key factors: the epicenter of the earthquake; how far inland the earthquake will rupture; and which sections of the fault will generate the strongest shaking.

Results show that the intensity of shaking can be less for Seattle if the epicenter is fairly close to beneath the city. From that starting point, seismic waves will radiate away from Seattle, sending the biggest shakes in the direction of travel of the rupture.

“Surprisingly, Seattle experiences less severe shaking if the epicenter is located just beneath the tip of northwest Washington,” Wirth said. “The reason is because the rupture is propagating away from Seattle, so it’s most affecting sites offshore. But when the epicenter is located pretty far offshore, the rupture travels inland and all of that strong ground shaking piles up on its way to Seattle, to make the shaking in Seattle much stronger.”