Sean Thompson/AP
Waves roll in through the rocks and are met by the fog at Lincoln City, Ore.

Earthquake Warning Has Oregon on Its Toes

April 22, 2009 07:40 AM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Recent studies have predicted a powerful earthquake and tsunami striking the Oregon coast within the next 50 years, prompting the state government to take precautionary measures. 

Earthquake to Hit Oregon Coast Sooner Than We Thought

New research has led scientists to believe that there is a 10 to 14 percent chance of a strong earthquake and tsunami striking the Oregon coast within the next 50 years. According to Rob Witter, a coastal geologist with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, “The amount of devastation is going to be unbelievable. People aren't going to be ready for this.”

James Roddey, a spokesman for the state agency, said the latest findings regarding tectonic activity at the Oregon coast come from Chris Goldfinger, director of the Active Tectonics and Seafloor Mapping Lab at Oregon State University. Goldfinger’s work is based on previous discoveries in the Cascadia subduction zone, an area located 50 to 75 miles off the Oregon coast where the Juan de Fuca Plate meets the North American Plate. The movement of these plates can create earthquakes of great magnitude (magnitude 8 or higher) every 300 to 600 years. The latest major earthquake to strike the Oregon coast occurred on Jan. 26, 1700, more than 300 years ago.
State agencies and other organizations in Oregon are making efforts to prepare for the upcoming natural disaster. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski has declared April as “Earthquake and Tsunami Awareness Month,” a time to raise public awareness about the risks and dangers of a possible earthquake or tsunami. The Oregon Civil Air Patrol and other state agencies have organized "Cascadia Peril 09," a statewide disaster exercise that will simulate a search and rescue response to a magnitude 9 earthquake.

Related Topic: Italy dismisses earthquake prediction

On April 6, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the town of L’Aquila in the Abruzzo region of Italy, killing nearly 300 people.

A few weeks earlier, seismologist Gioacchino Giuliani predicted that a large quake was coming, but the National Geophysics Institute dismissed his warnings. Giuliani was even reported to the authorities for allegedly creating panic among the local population, and had to remove his research from the Internet. Just days before the earthquake struck, Italy’s Civil Protection Agency declared they saw no reason for alarm: "The tremors being felt by the population are part of a typical sequence ... (which is) absolutely normal in a seismic area like the one around L'Aquila."

Giuliani’s forecast was based on spikes in concentrations of radon gas in the area. Tom Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center and an investigator on a project called the Collaboratory for the Study of Earthquake Predictability, told the Los Angeles Times that predictions of this kind are “hard to evaluate.” Scientists have long been searching for a way to predict earthquakes, and have tested many ideas over the years, including unorthodox methods such as ground warping, measuring the movement of air masses and monitoring the activity of cockroaches around seismic faults. 

Background: Making earlier earthquake predictions

Last year, seismologists announced that new ultrasensitive instruments that monitor subtle “stress-induced changes” in rocks could allow for the detection of earthquakes approximately 10 hours in advance. Adequate warning time would allow people to evacuate and fire departments to prepare for action. The science journal Nature called the study a significant advance in earthquake prediction methods. The team that led the study said that the findings have raised the possibility that earthquake forecasts may become routine in the future.

In May 2008, California released its first statewide earthquake forecast, predicting that there is a 99.7 percent chance that California will experience at least a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in the next three decades. Although scientists are not sure where or when the earthquake will occur, it will probably be in Southern California, a region that has had fewer earthquakes than Northern California during the last 100 years.

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