A powerful magnitude 7.8 earthquake shook Indonesia this week, triggering tsunami warnings and causing mass panic.
The risk of a serious Indonesian earthquake and tsunami in the region was well known to geologists — after all, records of such quakes extend as far back as the 10th century and geological evidence indicated they were comparatively common, but the world was still caught by surprise. But just because the massive quake occurred on the other side of the world doesn’t mean Americans should become complacent.
The U.S. has its own of earthquake “time bombs” to worry about, and each has the potential to cause lots of damage.
1: Rumble In The Pacific Northwest
This earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the Pacific Northwest called Cascadia in a massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake which would also spawn an enormous tsunami. The question isn’t if, it is when.
In 2011, Japan was devastated by the Mag. 9.0 Japanese Tohoku earthquake. Right off the coast, there is a geological arrangement nearly identical to the one which caused the Japanese earthquake.The Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed more than eighteen thousand people, devastated northeast Japan, triggered the meltdown at the Fukushima power plant, and cost an estimated $309 billion.
Seismologists estimate there is a 37 percent chance of a similar quake affecting the Pacific Northwest over the next 50 years.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that a massive Cascadia earthquake occurs in this area roughly once ever 240 years. The area last produced such a quake in 1700, more than 300 years ago, and the associated tsunami spread so far it impacted Japan. This unusually long recurrence interval may indicate a substantial buildup of stress, meaning that the quake would be even more powerful and create an even bigger tsunami when that stress is released.
The tsunami spawned by the quake would devastate the West Coast and would substantially impact Alaska and Hawaii as shown in this National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration animation.
2: Manhandling the Great Plains
In the middle of North America near where Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Tennessee meet there is a massive fault which could spawn a huge earthquake in the middle of the U.S. This area is extremely unusual geologically, because it is not near a tectonic plate boundary, but still produces some of the world’s largest earthquakes for reasons that scientists cannot fully explain.
The region has been struck by as many as four magnitude 7.0 or higher quakes in the last 2,000 years. In 1811, the region was hit by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake which was felt over more than 2 million square miles and destroyed five small towns.
The damage caused by a similar event today would be far greater, as the cities of Memphis, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri are close to the area and are very unprepared for a large earthquake.
The USGS estimates there is a 10 percent chance of an earthquake of magnitude comparable to those of 1811–1812 occurring within the next 50 years.
3: Los Angeles’ Coming Super Quake
The second most populous city in the U.S isn’t a stranger to quakes, but it still isn’t ready for a truly devastating one.
The Los Angeles area has a 99 percent change of a magnitude 6.7 or higher earthquakes occurring in the next 30 years according to the USGS. A similar earthquake in 1994 killed 57 people and caused up to $40 billion in damage.
Additionally, there is a 7 percent chance of a much larger magnitude 8.0 earthquake occurring in the next 30 years. The USGS states that such a quake could kill 1,800 dead, injure another 50,000 and cause $200 billion in damages.
4: Shaking In Salt Lake City
A 240-mile long fault line runs directly beneath the 1.6 million people who live in Salt Lake City and Utah’s urban corridor.
Geologists have found evidence that the fault has generated several magnitude 7.5. earthquakes. The fault has been ominously silent since 1847 andsurveys have shown dramatic build ups of stresses which could lead to a quake.
Historically, geologists know that each section of the fault goes off roughly ever 350 years or so. The section of the fault near Salt Lake City last ruptured 1,300 years ago, and the last big quake near the rest of the urban center was roughly 2,100 years ago.
“We’re basically due for an earthquake,” Chris DuRoss, a geologist at the Utah Geological Survey, told Wired in 2008. “We’re really getting right into that zone when we’d expect to see one.”
Salt Lake city is especially vulnerable to a quake because it sits on top of an ancient lake bed made of soft sediments which would amplify the seismic waves. Additionally, the region is not well prepared for an earthquake due to their relative rarity in the region.
5: Shake, Rattle and Roll in San Francisco
The Golden Gate city sits on directly on top of seven major fault lines and is incredibly vulnerable to a major quake.
In 1906, the city was struck by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Roughly 3,000 people died and over 80% of San Francisco was destroyed, making it one of the worst natural disasters in American history.
The Los Angeles area has a 63 percent change of a magnitude 6.7 or higher earthquakes occurring in the next 30 years according to the USGS. The city is also vulnerable to the San Andreas Fault, which has a 21 percent probability of a large earthquake occurring over the next 30 years.
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