Recent Work By Jerry Thompson


On Christmas Eve 2004 my wife, Bette, and I were in a hotel bar in San Francisco dreaming up plot points for a film we’d like to shoot some day when a woman arrived from the airport with breathless news. The bartender clicked his remote and It’s a Wonderful Life vanished, Jimmy Stewart’s smiling face wiped off the screen by a mountain of angry seawater. I can still see those endlessly repeated loops of amateur video shot from the balconies of beachfront resorts in Sumatra and Thailand, relayed by satellite to every TV receiver on the planet.

The first horrifying, mesmerizing wave crashed against a seawall, jetting skyward in salty white torrents, tearing through a fringe of palm trees like a monsoon river, across a hotel pool deck and a manicured square of green lawn. The darkening surge roared uphill through narrow, cluttered streets choked with tourist luggage, broken timbers, small motorcycles with their riders struggling to stay vertical, cargo vans overturned and bulldozed by white froth into market stalls. A transit bus floating on its side began to sink as desperate passengers jumped from the slippery roof.

It’s impossible to forget the images, those flailing human bodies—especially one unfortunate older man clinging to the outside railing of a rapidly filling parkade. Exhausted and in shock, he finally let go. We watched as he sank into the muddy torrent and was swept away.

More than 230,000 people in fourteen countries around the Indian Ocean died or disappeared, many of them before our eyes, and there was nothing any of us could do.  Everything not nailed to the ground was torn loose and carried off by the roaring water. And there was more to come. Even after the first water had cut a swath nearly a mile inland and then sucked itself halfway out to sea again, full of death and floating debris, people standing among the palms were so stunned by the spectacle they waited too long to outrun the next wave.

Most victims, including those who’d lived their entire lives along the beach—even fishermen who knew the sea quite well—had no idea these giant ripples would come ashore again and again. In Phuket, Thailand, some of the swells were sixty-five feet high. Closer to the earthquake zone, in Aceh province on the northern end of the island of Sumatra, the mountain of water topped more than a hundred feet.

Until that moment, only a handful of people in the world had ever experienced a tsunami. Fewer still had any concept of what causes these so-called tidal waves. The magnitude 9.2 earthquake, generated by the movement of two tectonic plates along an almost nine-hundred mile (1,400 km) undersea fault called the Sunda Trench, was never more than a footnote in the nonstop cycle of dismal news. The last time anything this big had happened in the Indian Ocean was more than six hundred years ago—so far back there were no written records, nor any social memory of the disaster. Perhaps that explains why so many were caught by surprise.

But the Indian Ocean disaster was only the most vivid example of what has happened before—and what lies ahead. Chile in 1960 had a magnitude 9.5 quake in which more than 2,000 lives were lost and 3,000 people were injured. Two million were left homeless. The resulting tsunami killed another 61 people in Hawaii, 138 more in Japan, and 32 in the Philippines. Alaska in 1964 suffered a magnitude 9.2 quake, with 128 lives lost and $311 million in property damage. Mexico City in 1985 was shaken by a magnitude 8.1 temblor in which at least 9,500 were killed, more than 100,000 were made homeless, and more than $3 billion of property damage was done. What happened to Sumatra in 2004 [and to Japan in 2011] will also happen to California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

The geologic source of the looming catastrophe along North America’s west coast—like all the others—lies hidden beneath the sea, out of sight and pretty much out of mind. Scientists, civil engineers, and emergency planners know with certainty that it’s bound to happen here, but they’re having a devil of a time getting anyone to pay attention. This book, I hope, will change that.

People in the United States and Canada, if they think at all about earthquake disasters, probably conjure up the infamous San Andreas fault as the worst case. In California, waiting for “the Big One,” people wonder which city the San Andreas will wreck next—San Francisco or Los Angeles? Well, perhaps neither, because if by the Big One they mean the earthquake that will wreak havoc over the widest geographical area, that could destroy the most critical infrastructure, that could send a train of tsunamis across the Pacific causing economic mayhem that would probably last a decade or more—then the seismic demon to blame could not possibly be the San Andreas. It would have to be Cascadia’s fault.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a crack in the earth’s crust, roughly sixty miles (100 km) offshore and running eight hundred miles (1,300 km) from northern Vancouver Island to northern California. It has generated massive earthquakes not just once or twice, but over and over again throughout geologic time. A recently published, peer-reviewed scientific research paper documents at least forty-one Cascadia “events” in the last ten thousand years. Nineteen of those events ripped the fault from end to end, a “full margin rupture.”

As for timing, scientists used to think these mega-quakes occurred every 500 to 530 years, but the newest data show that the fault has at least four segments, the southernmost being far more active and with a greater number of slightly smaller (magnitude 8 or higher) quakes. Based on historical averages, the southern end of the fault—from Cape Mendocino, California, to Newport, Oregon—has a large earthquake every 240 years. For the northern end—from mid-Oregon to mid-Vancouver Island—the average “recurrence interval” is 480 years, according to a recent Canadian study. And while the north may have only half as many jolts, they tend to be full-size disasters in which the entire fault breaks from end to end at magnitude 9 or higher.

Given that the last big quake was more than 311 years ago, one might argue that a very bad day on the southern segment is ominously overdue. With a timeline of forty-one events an American geologist has now calculated that the California–Oregon end of Cascadia’s fault has a 37 percent chance of producing a  major earthquake in the next fifty years. The odds are 10 percent that an even larger quake will strike the upper end (in a full margin rupture) in fifty years. It appears that three centuries of silence along the fault (Cascadia is classified as the quietest subduction zone in the world) has been entirely misleading. The monster is only sleeping.

Cascadia is virtually identical to the offshore fault that devastated Sumatra—almost the same length, the same width, and with the same tectonic forces at work. This fault can and will generate the same kind of earthquake we saw off Sumatra: magnitude 9 or higher. It will send crippling shockwaves across a far wider area than all the  California quakes you’ve ever heard about. Cascadia’s fault will slam five cities at once: Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Portland, and Sacramento. It will cause physical damage as far south as San Francisco.

Cascadia’s fault will cripple or destroy dozens of smaller towns and coastal villages from Tofino and Ucluelet on Vancouver Island to Crescent City and Eureka in northern California. None of these cities and towns will be able to call their neighbors for help because they will all be on their knees in rubble at exactly the same moment…

That’s not all. Cascadia will also slam the beaches of the west coast of North America as well as Alaska and Hawaii. A research plan prepared by NOAA—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—back in 1982 estimated that 900,000 people would be at risk from a fifty-foot (15 m) Cascadia tsunami striking the U.S. western seaboard.

But that’s just the United States. Nobody has done a projected death toll for the other Pacific Rim nations that would be affected. Researchers have, however, made a convincing case that an earthquake on Cascadia’s fault in 1700 put a series of waves thirteen to sixteen feet (4–5 m) high—imagine water more than fifteen feet above the highest tides—onto the beaches of eastern Japan, causing widespread damage, injuries, and deaths. At this point one can only imagine what the same waves would do to the seaports and villages of modern-day Japan. To this scenario add Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand—all of which would be hit by Cascadia’s waves…

How did you get onto this story in the first place?

I was in New York back in 1985, working on a television documentary about Russian soldiers who had defected in Afghanistan and escaped to the States. While I was there, a huge quake hit Mexico City and one of my best friends, a CBC cameraman by the name of Robb Douglas, was in one of the first crews sent down there to cover it. As you might imagine, I heard all the horrible details from him.

The quake was caused by the same kind of offshore fault that caused the recent disaster in Japan. Also similar to the big ones in Chile (in 1960 and 2010), the same kind of quake that hit Alaska in 1964, and the one in Sumatra in 2004. The same kind of quake that will hit the West Coast eventually.

Anyway, I got assigned to do a follow-up story to find out what the scientists had learned about these big offshore faults (geologists call them subduction zones) as a result of Mexico City. The short answer then was that we in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia have the same kind of fault off our coastline and therefore should expect the same kind of quake and tsunami here.

That news came as a bit of a shock to me in 1985, because I had no idea there was this huge crack in the ocean floor just waiting to rip apart. So I was really kind of blown away by the thought of it all.

Over the next 25 years or so, as the scientists kept learning more and solving more and more of the mysteries of how these quakes happen, I wound up doing six documentaries to update the original story for network television and then this book, Cascadia’s Fault, which tries to sum up the whole thing.

I really got drawn into the history of how the science grew. All the way from the early days of continental drift to modern plate tectonics. If you enjoy science as much as I do, it’s fun to follow the debates and to explore all the blind alleys they ran down trying to figure out for sure whether our particular subduction zone was a real threat. Because a few years back there were some who thought Cascadia’s fault might not be as dangerous as other similar zones around the Ring of Fire.

There was this idea that Cascadia was some kind of exception to the rules or a special case where two tectonic plates were sliding past each other without getting stuck – without building up the kind of strain that causes megathrust quakes. Now they know for sure that the earlier theory was wrong—Cascadia’s fault has killed before and will kill again. It is definitely not a quake-free zone.

It has generated big jolts (magnitude 8 or higher) 41 times in the last 10,000 years. Nineteen of those quakes were real monsters that ripped the fault from end-to-end, 800 miles from California to British Columbia at magnitude 9 or more.

So yeah – it’s been quite a ride, chasing down these stories, reading the scientific research papers and weaving it all together in a book. It’s a history, a mystery and a cautionary tale all in one.

Why haven’t we heard about this before now?

Well, some folks living in the Pacific Northwest and in British Columbia have heard it. Or parts of it. But my guess is that most of what people know about earthquakes in America has been about the San Andreas. That’s the most famous fault in the world, probably.

And people know about it because the San Andreas or one of the faults connected to it has ruptured and wrecked cities in the recent enough past that people remember it. In California the San Andreas is in the back of everyone’s mind all the time. The Hayward fault is gonna rip any time now.

But Cascadia’s fault has not had a major quake since January 26, 1700. How they figured out the exact date and time involved some really nifty detective work. It’s in the book. But before they figured that out, they used to say, “Well, there’s been no quake on this fault in ‘all of recorded history.’ Surely if there were going to be big quakes, we would have seen one by now.”

It turns out “all of recorded history” wasn’t long enough because European settlers who started writing things down didn’t arrive here until 150 years ago or thereabouts. Sure, the tribal elders of virtually every coastal village from northern California to Canada have always told stories of a big quake and a killer wave that happened long, long ago, but there was no way to put an exact date on it. No way to make it “real” for the politicians and general public until the serious quake hunters, the seismologists and marine geologists, tracked down all the clues and finally proved it.

But anyway, they now know these quakes can be 200 years apart, or 800 years apart. Since the last one was 311 years ago, you might argue we’re overdue. Going back to the San Andreas, however, that fault has ripped in smaller quakes many times in recorded history—so yes, everybody knows about it, but not Cascadia.

The difference is that when the San Andreas generates a quake, it usually affects one big urban area—San Francisco or Los Angeles, but not both at the same time. When Cascadia goes, if we get the full magnitude 9, we’ll have damage in five cities all at once.

What’s it like being the messenger of so much doom and gloom?

Honestly? I hate it. This story has been following me around for 25 years and I just wish it would all go away. But I know it won’t because this quake really is going to happen, beyond any reasonable scientific doubt.

Do you remember when Cher slapped Nicholas Cage in “Moonstruck” and told him to “snap out of it!” ? Well, that’s basically the situation we’re in with Cascadia’s fault. Those of us who live out here have to snap out of our trance or our denial or whatever it is and get busy with a ton of work that needs to be done before we’re anywhere near ready to face what’s coming our way.

But seriously now, aren’t you just trying to scare the hell out of everybody?

Actually, I’m not. Because I think kneejerk alarmism is a complete waste of time and energy. The truth is – we’re not all gonna die. The vast majority of us will survive the quake. Cities and towns will be wrecked to some degree and the tsunami waves will kill some of us – but only a few compared to the overall population.

The last number I heard was that something like 28,000 people in Japan had been killed or were missing. Which is a terrible number, no getting around it. But there were millions more in that region who survived. In the days ahead I expect you’ll start to hear stories of how some of those folks managed to stay alive – there will be stories of miraculous heroism and ingenuity. The Japanese knew something like this would happen eventually and they were probably the most organized and prepared people in the world. But right now, we in North America are nowhere near that prepared.

So what really matters now is how well all of us survivors endure the aftermath. And that depends entirely on how much effort and energy we invest in getting ourselves ready for the inevitable.

But here’s some good news: survival skills can be learned. Education will help, so go out there and get some. Take a first aid course. Join your local emergency preparedness group. Make sure your local and national politicians don’t ignore the long list of things that need to be done right here at home.

Here’s some more good news: resilience is a state of mind and a multi-purpose tool. Whatever you teach yourself about surviving a quake will work just as well if you’re facing a forest fire, a flooding river, a hurricane or a terrorist attack.

If you think back to how the richest, most powerful, most technologically advanced nation on the planet responded to Hurricane Katrina, then just imagine what it’s gonna be like when five cities get hit with a Katrina-size disaster on the same day. The shockwaves from a magnitude 9 quake on Cascadia’s fault will reach from Sacramento to Portland to Seattle to Victoria and Vancouver in Canada. All at the same moment.

So there won’t be any government agency or white knight riding over the hill to the rescue. People are going to be on their own for days if not weeks. And that’s why now’s the time to snap out of the trance and start making your own plans for survival. Because nobody else is going to do it for you.