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Friday, May 7, 2021

Is Whatcom County ready for “The Big One”?

The potential for a magnitude 9.0 earthquake is a real possibility in the Pacific Northwest as the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate off Washington’s coast is currently trying to dive beneath North America.

There’s no exact way to predict when the earthquake will strike, but the proposed damage is severe enough that Western may need to prepare.

How imminent is an earthquake?

Earthquakes caused by this 700-mile-long Cascadia subduction zone west of Vancouver Island occur every 300 to 500 years, with the last one happening January 26, 1700, 316 years ago.

“We’re in that window, but that window is a very broad window,” Western seismology professor Jackie Caplan-Auerbach said. “We don’t have any reason to think it will be tomorrow but we don’t have any reason to not think it. As a consequence, we need to be prepared.”

How hard will the “big one” hit Whatcom County?

Proximity to the earthquake controls the level of expected damage. Because Whatcom County is a reasonable distance from the subduction zone, we aren’t expected to experience the most severe ground shaking, Caplan-Auerbach said.

Are Western’s buildings susceptible to damage?

Assistant Director of Facilities Development Ed Simpson said Western’s buildings are in good shape to weather a large earthquake should it happen. Simpson said all the buildings on campus have either been constructed up to code or have been renovated with seismic mitigation work — essentially earthquake-proofing.

“Currently there are no structures I’m aware of that would give us a lot of concern,”  Simpson said.

Sections of Western’s campus, such as Red Square, have been constructed on top of a large peat bog, a marsh-like wetland. Geology professor Bob Mitchell said the peat essentially acts like a sponge and it will deflate when a load is placed on it.

“All of the buildings either rest on solid bedrock or they have [gravel] piles down to bedrock,” Simpson said. “The buildings themselves should be unaffected by the peat bog.”

How quick can Whatcom recover?

Emergency response to this scenario would be slowed, as roads and bridges could be knocked out. In an emergency scenario, Bellingham doesn’t have the greatest need compared to larger populations in Seattle or both Vancouver, Washington and Vancouver, B.C. Pete Stelling, a geology professor at Western, said. Because of this, Whatcom county residents need to be prepared for about 10 days without help, Stelling said.

Should we panic?

As serious as a potential natural disaster can sound, Caplan-Auerbach said there’s no reason to be afraid or paranoid.

“There’s no point to being scared, except it can render you immobile,” she said. “There’s also no reason to think this earthquake is imminent. That said, it would be foolish to expect it not to happen. We know it will happen.”

Although it’s unclear when exactly the earthquake will hit, Caplan-Aurbach says Whatcom residents have an advantage.

“We’re in a really lucky situation,” Caplan-Auerbach said. “We’re educated. We have a lot of knowledge about this and we have the potential to prepare. It will take effort, but I think it’s worth it. ”


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