The title of Full Rip 9.0 and the cover, an off-kilter picture of a slice of the Seattle skyline as seen through a shattered window, make you think this book will be a lurid warning of disaster. Sandi Doughton’s narrative of the uncovering of the subduction zone off the Northwest coast and the local, near-surface faults (especially Seattle’s) that dot Washington and Oregon is, however, mostly a fairly restrained, composed profile of the scientists and engineers who have led advances in the region’s earthquake science over the past few decades.
Doughton’s story focuses on the geological record and its implications for the Northwest. Does the region face an offshore mega-quake and tsunami on the scale of Japan’s 3/11/11 event that will kill thousands and devastate the economy, or a series of magnitude 8 offshore quake and tsunami events that will cumulatively be nearly as devastating?
When might the Seattle Fault or another of the Northwest’s near-surface faults (still being discovered and mapped) deliver a Haiti-like quake that causes terrifying but limited, localized devastation?
Doughton portrays the seismologists, engineers, and geologists working on the answers as increasingly worried about the danger, and increasingly willing to broadcast their warnings to the public, despite their uncertainty about the exact nature of the region’s seismic hazards.
Full Rip 9.0 is structured as 14 chapters whose sections, divided by images of seismograph squiggles, describe the developments and how and where they happened. The scenes range from Brian Atwater’s exploration of the ghost forest of the Copalis on the central Washington coast, which started Northwest subduction zone studies in 1986, to the site of the subduction zone on the muddy surface of the Pacific’s floor, to the offices and conference rooms where professionals debate the level of seismic risk facing Puget Sound and the broader region, and what programs are needed to address the risk.
There are no great dramas after the introduction’s depiction of the 1700 subduction zone quake and tsunami: Doughton, writing for the general, concerned audience, avoids jargon and technical language, but her book is no thriller.
Perhaps the most disturbing news in Doughton’s book is the word that the Northwest’s engineers are increasingly developing building plans that depend heavily on computer models, lack steel frames, and barely meet code requirements, using thinner and thinner concrete shear walls to provide much of a building’s resilience to shaking. The need to cut costs in order to win building contracts drives much of this trend.
It matters because these practices, used in many recent apartment, condo, and office towers, leave buildings with a narrowing margin of protection to hold up against the sustained shaking that will come in the next serious quake. Doughton quotes Peter Yanev, a consulting earthquake engineer who wrote a 2010 New York Times op-ed warning about this danger in the major Northwest cities, saying: “These concrete buildings scare the living daylights out of me and a lot of other engineers.”
A lot of people might look up at the Space Needle and envision it splitting in a Big One, but Doughton explains that its structural engineer, John K. Minasian, was “a fanatic for detail” who oversaw a construction process with multiple redundancies and shaped by extreme conservatism and overengineering: the Needle’s grounded on a huge foundation of reinforced concrete anchored by massive steel bolts and beams. Gary Noble Curtis, an engineer on the project, tells Doughton: “There was no complaining that we put too much steel in it. Today, you’d get in big trouble for wasting somebody’s money.” The Needle may have been built without the aid of plate tectonics theory and computing power, but unlike most of downtown Seattle’s taller buildings, it’s already been tested by the substantial quakes of 1965 and 2001.
Politicians, senior bureaucrats, and corporate executives hardly show up in Full Rip 9.0, but they approve the budgets that respond to the scientists’ warnings about seismic hazards. How many of them are willing to follow Minasian’s lead and authorize overengineering to ensure long-term security, with the associated risk of unnecessary spending, rather than give preference to short-term budget concerns?
Given the surprising amount of damage caused by the recent quakes in Haiti, Japan, and New Zealand, and the still immature state of seismology and earthquake engineering, it seems the best strategy is to always assume earthquakes can be bigger than we think, and engineer our structures accordingly. Think of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in spring 2010: it was apparently the result of engineers under time and budget pressures giving the go-ahead for cost-cutting measures that they knew to be somewhat risky but believed were unlikely to cause problems. It doesn’t make much sense to think that structural engineers will never bow to such pressures.
Cascadia’s Fault, another book that describes the uncovering of the subduction zone as a scientific detective story, was published a few months after Japan’s 3/11/11 earthquake. Written by Jerry Thompson, a tv documentarian who lives on Vancouver Island, it takes a dramatic, scenic approach to the task, complete with a closing fictional but plausible narrative of the subduction zone disaster of which the book warns.
Doughton was trained as a biologist, then decided to become a science journalist: that background probably explains why she spends more time describing scientists’ efforts to decide the best way to measure earthquake magnitude than conjuring scenes from the next Big One. That said, Doughton and Thompson trod on each other’s turf quite a bit and interview many of the same players. The substance (if not the style) of their books is very similar. Unless you’re strongly interested in earthquakes, reading just one of the two books will satisfy your need to know about seismicity in the Northwest. My guess is that if you work in a technical field you’ll prefer Doughton’s fairly low-key prose to Thompson’s more novelistic stylings.
Also, here’s a follow-up note on how the Space Needle was built. Knute Berger, who’s written a recent book about the Needle, tells me: “Minasian was adamant on a stronger Needle. He studied with Richter at Cal Tech and in addition to designing many towers in California, he was also an expert forensic tower specialist–the guy to call when one failed (broadcast towers, in addition to his NASA and Air Force gantries). Gary told me that the Needle would withstand a 9 quake–though the folks at the top would likely be knocked around. My book recounts what happened up there during the ’65 quake, and I was able to interview at least one person who was on top that day, as well as Howard S. Wright’s George Schuchart who watched the Needle sway from the ground. The concrete foundation, at Minasian’s insistence, was a single, continuous poor, which strengthened it.”