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Nov 15 / Dave Schumaker

Chances of a Large Tsunami Hitting U.S.

When people talk about a large tsunami hitting the United States, many people automatically thing of the Canary Island and La Palma volcano. However, scientists believe the threat of that happening is low. What are the chances of a large tsunami hitting the United States from other areas?

An earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone could produce a tsunami comparable to the December 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami, says Kevin Furlong, a geophysicist at Penn State. That area is capable of producing a M9.0 or large event every 300 to 500 years, with the last quake hitting in the 1700’s.

But Furlong’s biggest concern is the so-called Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 600-mile fault formed by the meeting of two tectonic plates off the Pacific coast between northern California and central Vancouver Island. “At some point this area will host an earthquake and tsunami comparable in size to what happened in December in Sumatra,” he said flatly. “And when it happens, we can expect a similar pattern of devastation.”

Fifteen to 20 years ago, Furlong conceded, “people thought the Cascadia zone was a very safe margin.” In the interim, however, several lines of research have converged to create a much different picture. First, researchers found deposits of sea-floor sediment in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, in places too far inland to be reached by ordinary tidal activity. “When a tsunami comes in it’s picked up a lot of sand,” Furlong noted. “People talk about the wave looking black.”

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