Earthquake

Key Points

  • Earthquakes are the most serious hazard facing Seattle. Unlike other potentially catastrophic hazards, Seattle has had and will experience powerful earthquakes.
  • The Seattle area experiences three earthquake types with varying consequences:o Crustal or Shallow Quakes occur in the North American plate at 0-30 km near the crust's surface along faults. Intense shaking occurs near the epicenter but usually diminishes quickly with distance relative to the other earthquake types.
    • Crustal earthquakes are expected on the Seattle Fault Zone, which is the primary but not only source for this type of quake in Seattle. An example of a crustal earthquake is the magnitude (M)6.2 Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake that occurred in 2011.
    • Intraplate or Deep Quakes occur at depths of 30-70 km in oceanic crust as it dives under lighter continental crust. Because of the depth, even buildings located right above them are far enough away that seismic waves are attenuated. An example of a deep earthquake is the M6.8 Nisqually Earthquake that occurred in the Pacific Northwest in 2001.
    • Subduction Zone or Megathrust Quakes occur on the interface between the North American plate and the Juan de Fuca plate, a small plate extending from northern California to British Columbia. An example of a megathrust earthquake is the M9.0 Tōhoku Earthquake that occurred off the coast of Japan in 2011.
  • The amount of shaking at a location depends on an earthquake's magnitude, the distance between the location and the earthquakes 's source, and local geology. Other factors like the frequency of seismic waves also affect how structures shake in earthquakes.
  • Earthquake frequency intervals are estimates, not predictions. The estimated occurrence rate of a M6.0 or larger deep earthquake is about every 30-50 years. The estimated occurrence rate of a megathrust earthquake is every 200 to 1,100 years, or on average, every 500 years. The estimated frequency of a Seattle Fault earthquake is difficult to determine due to lack of data. Estimated recurrence intervals range from every 200-15,000 years.
  • An earthquake on the Seattle Fault poses the greatest risk to Seattle because:
    • The Seattle Fault Zone extends east-west through the middle of the city.
    • A Seattle Fault quake could be as large as M7.5,160 but less than M7.0 is more probable.
    • The most recent Seattle Fault earthquake was about 1,100 years ago;
    • The Seattle Fault has been active about three or four times in the past 3,000 years.
  • Deep quakes are the most common large earthquakes that occur in the Puget Sound region. Quakes larger than M6.0 occurred in 1909, 1939, 1946, 1949, 1965 and 2001.
  • Megathrust earthquakes are the greatest risk to the broader west coast region. A megathrust earthquake could reach M9.0+ and affect an area from Canada to northern California. A Cascadia megathrust earthquake could rank as one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded, but because Seattle is several hundred miles from the source seismic waves would weaken slightly before they reach Seattle. Shaking would be violent and prolonged, but not as intense as in a Seattle Fault quake.
  • About 15% of Seattle's total area is soil that is prone to ground failure in earthquakes. The Duwamish Valley, Interbay, and Rainier Valley are vulnerable to ground failure and shaking because of the liquefiable soils in these areas.
  • Seattle has over 1100 unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs) that are prone to collapse in earthquakes. These older brick buildings tend to be concentrated in areas expected to experience the strongest ground motion during earthquakes.
  • Seattle has many bridges that, despite seismic retrofits, may not be useable after a strong earthquake. Damage to them would impair emergency services and the economy.
  • An earthquake will produce costly damage. Combined property damage for quakes in 1949 and 1965 in the region amounted to roughly $400 million (2010 dollars). The 2001 Nisqually Earthquake resulted in damage to City of Seattle buildings, infrastructure, and response costs that exceeded $20 million. Adding in the costs of repairing arterial road structures, the figure topped $36 million.
  • Secondary impacts such as landslides, tsunami, fires, infrastructure failures, and hazardous materials releases could become disasters themselves. In past earthquakes, more people have died from fire than building collapse.
    • 2013 research finds that Seattle could experience thousands of landslides following a strong (M7.0) Seattle Fault earthquake. Estimates range from 5,000 in dry conditions to 30,000 in the wettest conditions.
    • A large Seattle Fault earthquake could trigger a tsunami up to 16 ft high that would strike the Seattle shoreline within seconds of the earthquake and flood it within 5 minutes. A megathrust earthquake will not cause a tsunami with inundation for Seattle but is expected to cause strong currents in Seattle's waters that may be dangerous for vessels. A deep earthquake could cause landslides that trigger a tsunami.
    • A M7.0 Seattle Fault earthquake could cause dozens of fires. Suppressing the fires may be more difficult due to severed transportation routes and possible damage to the water system, which could reduce water pressure in many parts of the city.
    • Structural failure and fires would probably cause multiple hazardous materials releases. They could range from minor spills to major incidents with public health and environmental ramifications.

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