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Ten Years After Nisqually Quake, Northwest’s Seismic Dangers Still Lurk

In the decade since the Nisqually earthquake shook buildings, rattled nerves and rolled the ground in Western Washington, the level of seismic danger in the Pacific Northwest hasn’t changed. But scientific ideas about the danger have evolved and the ability to study and prepare for it has improved immensely.

Scientists from the University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey have increased their knowledge about the three different types of non-volcanic earthquakes that occur in the Northwest, and are learning how unfelt “episodic tremor and slip” events relate to seismic risk. The number of seismic sensors and the territory they monitor has tripled. Engineering standards have improved to meet the region’s seismic risks.

“Most places in the world that experience earthquakes have a better recorded history than we have, so we’re at somewhat of a disadvantage,” said Stephen Malone, a UW emeritus research professor of Earth and space sciences.

Malone was director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, based at UW, when the magnitude 6.8 Nisqually quake struck just before 11 a.m. PST on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2001. Similar to quakes centered near Olympia in 1949 and Tacoma in 1965, the Nisqually quake was about 32 miles deep, near the interface where the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate is descending beneath the North American plate.

These intraslab quakes have been the most common damaging earthquakes in Western Washington’s recorded history, but the time frame in which they recur is probably the least understood, said John Vidale, a UW Earth and space sciences professor and current director of the seismic network.

“They are not regular. There is no reason to believe another one is overdue to happen,” Vidale said, though he added that if history is any guide Western Washington is unlikely to be as seismically quiet as it has been for the last five years.

The geological survey estimates there is a better-than-80 percent chance of an intraslab earthquake of magnitude 6.5 or greater in this region within the next 50 years.

Intraslab quakes are not the most-damaging seismic events in the region. Shallow quakes on crustal faults – such as the Seattle, Tacoma and South Whidbey Island faults – don’t happen nearly as often but can cause more significant damage near their source and also could generate tsunamis in Puget Sound. The last major quake on the Seattle fault, estimated at magnitude 7.4, happened about 1,100 years ago, raising the south end of Bainbridge Island and what is now Alki Beach in West Seattle 15 to 20 feet and generating a Puget Sound tsunami.

Then there are megathrust, or subduction zone, quakes that mostly occur off the Washington and Oregon coast and could be almost as powerful as the magnitude 9.1 quake that struck south Asia in 2004 and generated a deadly tsunami. As the Juan de Fuca plate slides beneath the North American plate, a process called subduction, the plates are locked together near the surface and stress continues to build up over centuries. When the locked zone gives way, a mammoth earthquake results.

The last subduction earthquake here, in January 1700, generated a tsunami that did damage in Japan and affected the entire Pacific Basin. Such a quake could be less damaging than, say, one on the Seattle fault, since it would be farther away from the population centers of Western Washington. But the prolonged shaking, perhaps five to nine minutes, would still cause significant damage throughout the entire Pacific Northwest west of the Cascade Range.

Scientists know these magnitude 9 earthquakes in the Cascadia subduction zone occur on average every 500 years, though they can happen on shorter or longer time scales. Vidale estimates the danger now is about half what it will be in 200 years. “The risk is not as high as it’s going to get, if the models are correct,” he said.

The Nisqually earthquake was recorded on the first modern strong-motion sensors deployed in Western Washington. Since 2001, the coverage has tripled to more than 130 stations, and 30 more are in the works. A new array of sensors has been deployed to record liquefaction, which occurs when the shaking pushes ground water to the surface to liquefy the soil. There are few detailed liquefaction records in the United States, and some came from the Nisqually quake.

Other developments since the 2001 quake include:

***Refinement of hazard maps and models to give better estimates of the shaking expected in future earthquakes.

***Documentation of new faults. The Seattle and Price Lake (Olympic Peninsula) faults were known in 2001. Several others have been documented since, including Tacoma, Frigid Creek, Canyon River, South Whidbey Island (which probably has had the largest previous quakes), Utsalady and, in eastern Washington, Ellensburg and Umtanum Ridge.

***Shake maps and “Did You Feel It” reporting available to the public automatically within 10 minutes of larger earthquakes.

***Building code changes based on improvements in seismic engineering and adoption of the International Building Code, with standards linked to the best seismic science.

***Increased public awareness and preparedness.

***Discovery of episodic tremor and slip, or slow-slip. These unfelt events happen about every 15 months, last for several weeks and release as much energy as a magnitude 6.5 earthquake. They are adding to an already complex regional seismic picture.

***Improved and more numerous broadband seismometers to see earthquakes clearly over the entire region.

“We’re more evenly monitoring the Pacific Northwest, including parts of eastern Oregon and eastern Washington that weren’t monitored before,” Malone said. “We also have better monitoring of the Cascades volcanoes.”

Scientists here and around the world are trying to devise methods to predict earthquakes, “but right now we can’t even see how that might work,” Vidale said. In addition, there are hopes for refined forecasting ability, based on historic patterns and general probability, he said.

It also is possible now to develop an early warning system, using data from sensors close to an earthquake source to determine which direction the waves will go and how strong the shaking might be. Such systems are already being used in Japan, Mexico and elsewhere.

“That could give people advance warning ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes,” Vidale said. “The question is whether it is worth the financial cost.”

Nisqually Earthquake – Quick Facts
Date: Feb. 28, 2001
Epicenter: Anderson Island, about 10 miles from Olympia
Depth: 53 kilometers, or about 32 miles
Damage: Estimates from $500 million to more than $2 billion
Injuries: 300-400
Deaths: One indirectly attributed to the earthquake.
Structures with significant damage: Alaskan Way Viaduct and Magnolia Bridge, Seattle; the Washington State Capitol and the Fourth Street Bridge, Olympia; control tower, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; unreinforced masonry or concrete buildings in the Pioneer Square and Sodo neighborhoods of Seattle.

A list of expert sources for information on Pacific Northwest earthquakes is at

On the Web:
Pacific Northwest Seismic Network:
City of Seattle Office of Emergency Management:

Washington State Emergency Management Division:

High-resolution images of Nisqually earthquake damage that are in the public domain, via Wikimedia, are available.

Vince Stricherz | Newswise Science News
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