Supervolcanoes and Earthquakes

As all eyes have been on New Orleans and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, my thoughts have also gone to our preparedness for other disasters which could make New Orleans look trivial in comparison. Earthquakes and other seismic events are the biggest possibilities and several things have hit my radar screen recently I’d like to share with you.

Just so you know, I’m a “glass is half full” guy and not paranoid, but my day job requires that I wear a risk assessment hat — being always alert to upside and downside while performing scenario planning that includes worst-case  — and the effects of the below are worst-case…or are they?

Some months ago my son and I watched a Discovery program about Supervolcanoes and the fact that Yellowstone Nat’l Park officials were alerted to a “tipping” of Yellowstone Lake (water became shallower on one end and deeper on the other…like tipping a bowl of water). Seems that the magma chamber under a >50 square mile area of the Park was bulging. Though the risk of a supervolcano erupting in any foreseeable near term future is quite small (though truly unknown), I’ve been to Yellowstone as a kid and seen many of these seismic areas in person and know how close this activity is to the surface. It was a fascinating program while simultaneously disturbing.

The thrust of the program was that this 50+ square mile area could explode (as it had in the past) as a supervolcano, spewing ash and debris in to the air and plunging the world in to a something akin to a nuclear winter.

What about Cascadia and the mystery of the bulge?


The Mystery of the Oregon Bulge
A 100 square mile area near Bend, Oregon is bulging (two guys reading this headline on a podcast said, “Maybe Oregon is aroused?” After laughing out loud, I went back to wondering what was up seismically and what the effects might be). Could be another volcano in the making or might be a shift in magma that sits underneath the Cascade mountain range. In any event, something is going on in the Earth and it’s a growing concern for officials there as well as people in Oregon (I have a great-aunt who lives in Bend).

Is a Cascadian earthquake imminent?
After my recent trip to Seattle, I was at home flipping channels and came across the Science Channel’s show about the Cascadian subduction zone that will, at some point (and we’re overdue for it) create a sustained shaking that would have devastating effects for the cities of Vancouver, Seattle and Portland (buildings tipping over, huge tsunami devastating the coast from Northern California to Alaska, substantial loss of life). The tsunami that would result would affect our coast within 30 minutes but there would be ample warning time of hours for other coastal areas to be evacuated around the Pacific Rim. When you think of what just happened in New Orleans and the tragic loss of life certain to occur, imagine the refugees and economic impact along hundreds of miles of our Pacific coast!

Connecting Dots
Hmmm….a bulge twice as large as the Yellowstone supervolcano area occurring in Oregon. Concern over a Cascadian earthquake. Then I come across this article detailing that there is a slow seismic slip event underway in the Pacific Northwest that has fractionally increased our chances of a Cascadian earthquake…but increased it nonetheless. There’s a lot going on ‘under’ the western United States that certainly seem to be major warning signs that we should heed.

Though I can sit here in Minnesota with little chance of an earthquake or volcano directly killing my family or me, the fallout from a supervolcano/earthquake major disaster would dramatically affect us all and the devastation, loss of life, and economic fallout would be unparalleled in human history. By the way, the Central US is not immune to natural disasters of this type. The New Madrid fault runs along the Mississippi River basin and the Mississippi even ran backwards in 1812 during the last major quake along this faultline (three of the largest earthquakes in US history occurred near New Madrid, MO in 1811 & 1812).

Could we cope with a major multi-city disaster?
It’s almost inconceivable to ponder what would happen if a major Cascadian earthquake occurred, if a supervolcano in Yellowstone exploded, or a new volcano was formed and erupted near major population centers. That’s just here in the United States. There are hot zones like this all over the world and we are all more inextricably intertwined as people and economies globally than ever before…and the momentum of both of these trends is accelerating.

While my assessment of the risk associated with supervolcanoes is low, earthquake and tsunami risk and damage is high. With the Keystone Kops-like disaster response which just occurred in New Orleans, my confidence in our nation’s ability to cope with events of this magnitude isn’t high…let alone determining how we could possibly afford to recompense all who are affected on such a massive scale.

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  1. Jim on May 1, 2008 at 5:02 am

    There has been some serious activity on the New madrid fault line recently and I’m relatively certain that it is simular to the “Great New Madrid Quake” activity accept with a slightly more northern shift. This would make perfect sense if some of the models that I have seen are correct. The magma pressure zone is on its northern revolution and would account for increased activity in the NW as well.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.