sneakysnaga (sneakysnaga) wrote in disaster_watch,

Sleepless about Seattle

I want to record some thoughts from my three visits out to Seattle. Its a beautiful city, but the whole place worries me. People think only about the day-to-day for the most part, and when they think about the past or the future, in general they are concerned about their own life-time. The trouble with that is that some things work on a totally different timespan. So when we build our cities, and they sprout up from nothing in not too much over 100 years, then this is a blink of an eye in geological time.

Seattle sits on a seismic fault. It has occasional earthquakes, that are strong but not ruinous. But evidence suggests that sometimes, just sometimes, they can be far worse. Somewhere not too far, is a sunken forest, where an entire area of land subsided during a quake.

Looming over the city on a clear day you can see Mt Ranier. It looks pretty, magnificent and serene. Just like the next great volcano in the chain, Mt St Helens. Mt St Helens is now famous for its great eruption of 1980, but the fact is that Mt Rainer is a far scarier prospect, and not only because it is certainly with striking distance of Seattle. A quote from USGS

"History of massive debris avalanches and debris flows. Occasional very shallow seismicity. ... Largest of the Cascade volcanoes. A mudflow caused by steam explosions about 5,700 years ago was one of the largest known in the world. Expected to erupt again within the next few hundred years; hazards consist mainly of mudflows, floods, and fallout of tephra."

That's the kind of unspecific information that allows you to roll over and go back to sleep. When you read on and find it is "the most dangerous" of all the Cascades volcanoes, and that they really don't know much about when it will erupt, that is concerning. The reference to mudflows and floods, is an acknowledgement that when Rainier next erupts (and it is when) it will melt the glaciers on the top, and this will send a torrent of mud, ice, rock and water rushing down the slopes. Unfortunately, the evidence is that Seattle is built right in the path of some the historic flows from Rainer. Tacoma is even more vulnerable. Read more here

Then I look at what people have done since they came in such numbers in the last 100 or so years. I worry about all those skyscrapers in an earthquake zone. At least building codes enforce seismic resistance, but a really big quake would certainly test that out. I worry at all the houses build on steep slopes: they look so precariously perched. Elsewhere in world, such buildings have simply slid down the hill. And I worry about the buildings built right on the waterfront, with no protection at all. It would only take a small landslide into the Puget Sound, to set off a wave that would cause huge damage. Much of the tree cover that holds those slopes together remains, fortunately, but when people build on those slopes it adds weight that the soil has to support. That stress could prove fatal. Any scenario like that would be appalling.

I don't know too much about what is being done the state government/FEMA about these issues. I'm not saying they are remiss in any way. I want to make that clear. I just see bad possibilities.

I see all this, as a morbid outsider. The people of Washington seems either unaware or unconcerned of these risks. Perhaps that is essential for psychological survival. If you really knew what might happen, and you really thought it a good possibility, it would be almost intolerable. So people put their faith in gods or science, and focus on the here and now. Its only us outsiders that need to worry, it seems.
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