Tag Archives: 9.0 earthquake

It’s our fault

By Andrew Lohafer

Bellingham is situated on an enormous fault. The Horizon turned to geology teacher Doug McKeever to answer some of our pressing questions about earthquakes.


   What causes earthquakes?

The basic cause of nearly all earthquakes is due to strain (caused by stress) that has accumulated to the breaking point of rock.  The energy released travels through earth materials as seismic waves, which can often be felt by humans, recorded by seismographs, and can cause catastrophic damage, depending on factors such as distance from focus (starting point of earthquake), type of earth material (bedrock vs. saturated soft sediment or landfill), type of construction and building materials, population density, even time of day or season.


     What is the likelihood of us having a major earthquake here in the Northwest?

  The likelihood of having a “major” (magnitude 7 or more) earthquake in the region is 100 percent.  “Where” is not the problem….. “When” and “how big” and “with what consequences” are the issues. Earthquakes have proven to be essentially unpredictable in the short term. That’s why in my opinion an Italian court was outrageously misguided in sentencing 6 Italian seismologists with manslaughter for not “predicting the unpredictable” (the L’Aquila 2004 Italian earthquake that killed 309).


    What is the fault line?

  There are numerous faults in the area. The most significant is the Cascadia fault, the tectonic plate boundary between the oceanic Juan de Fuca plate to the west, which is sliding (sub ducting) under the continental North American plate where we live. Other faults include the Boulder Creek fault near Kendall, the Seattle fault, the South Whidbey fault, and the Devils Mountain fault near Mt. Vernon, any one of which is likely capable of rupturing and producing earthquakes. There are also likely to be other faults that haven’t been mapped or haven’t ruptured to produce historic earthquakes. But what we don’t know can hurt us!


   Should we worry about other natural disasters around this area?

  As long as one stays off river floodplains, avoids steep slopes capable of landslides, doesn’t live on a low-lying coastal area with limited rapid escape options, and removes hazardous trees near one’s home, we live in one of the safer areas in the United States.


What should we do to prepare for an earthquake?

Preparation includes becoming aware by taking a WCC class such Natural Disasters (Geology 140) or Environmental Geology, Geology 110). Other aspects of preparation include having a plan in event of a natural disaster and having a “72 hour kit,” which involves being independent of outside help for a minimum of three days. This includes but is not limited to having non-perishable food, water, flashlights, battery radio, prescription medicines, and first aid supplies, and first aid training.”


   When was the last time the Northwest had a severe earthquake?

Perhaps the largest historic earthquake in the Pacific Northwest since 1700 occurred in 1872 with an epicenter near Chelan. Since 1900 there have been six earthquakes of magnitude 6 or more, with an average interval of 18.4 years but with as little as three years and as much as 36 years separating them (so much for the average!).  On February 28, 2001, there was an earthquake of magnitude 6.8 centered near Anderson Island in south Puget Sound (the “Nisqually earthquake”).

The most recent great earthquake (M=8 or above) was one occurring on the Cascadia fault on January 26, 1700, at about 9 p.m. local time. It had an approximate magnitude of 9, equivalent to the M=9 earthquake near Sumatra in 2004 that led to the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami or the March 11, 2011 earthquake near Japan.  A repeat of the 1700 quake is likely, since the shallow part of the fault is locked and accumulating strain energy.  As stated earlier, “when” and “how big” are the questions.”

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Japanese Students Cope with Disaster

by Matt Benoit

Horizon Editor

As Japan continues to deal with the devastating effects of the 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami disaster that occurred on March 11, it is likely that no students at Whatcom Community College have been watching the developing crisis more closely than the 19 Japanese students here as part of the college’s international program.

Kelly Kester, Whatcom’s director of international programs, said in a campus-wide e-mail to faculty on March 14 that the students’ friends and family were only “peripherally impacted” by the earthquake and tsunami.  In a subsequent interview, Kester said all of the students had heard from their families.

A few years ago, though, Kester said Whatcom hosted a large group of students from Sendai, one of the cities most heavily damaged by the tsunami.

While some of those students transferred to universities in the U.S., others returned home to Japan. Kester said that Whatcom has been in e-mail contact with an organization in Montana that sent the students to Whatcom from the University of Montana, and that the organization would try to let the college know if they had heard from any of those students.

Another former Whatcom student who’s dealing with the disaster, said Kester, is a man who graduated last quarter and travelled back to his home country of Thailand to spend several months before he heads back to the U.S. to begin attending Central Washington University this summer.  As a member of the Thai military, the man is now doing disaster relief work in Japan.

In addition to former students in Japan, five new Japanese students are expected to arrive in Bellingham between March 27 and 28. They will be attending Whatcom during the spring quarter.

Kester said Whatcom has worked with the students’ other schools to try to find out what’s happened to them, but added that they are reluctant to be too aggressive in pursuing  information with all the likely difficulties those students may be facing.

“We hope that these students will get here,” Kester said, but added that if they cannot, it is certainly understandable. If that is the case, Kester said the college would help the students attend Whatcom at another time.  

All of this, he stated, is still secondary to making sure the students are okay and that the college continues to monitor the situation in Japan as it develops, especially with the uncertainty of Japan’s nuclear plant issues.  

Of the current students’ friends and families, Kester said the stories he’s heard about them mostly involve transportation inconveniences such as road closures or being trapped on a train. Other issues involve power outages, as well as houses being partially damaged or suffering collapsed roofs.   

Despite all the damage that has been caused, Kester said it is fortunate Japan does so much planning for natural disasters.

“They do an amazing job of preparing for these things,” he said. “Japan will recover, but it will take a lot of time.”

That recovery may be aided by Whatcom’s own, as Kester said members of several student clubs, including the International Friendship Club, are having conversations about organizing ways to collect donations for disaster relief efforts in Japan.  Some of the students had planned to meet March 16 to discuss those possibilities further.

“I’m glad that they’re so thoughtful,” Kester said.

Many of Whatcom’s faculty and staff have also sent e-mails expressing their thoughts and concerns for the Japanese students.

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