Quake experts warn next 'big one' could be worse than first thought

Quake experts warn next 'big one' could be worse than first thought »Play Video
SEATTLE -- Experts agree that it's not a matter of if, but when the Pacific Northwest is rocked by an enormous earthquake, but new information shows that the "big one" could be even bigger and badder than first thought.

Scientists say when the next big one hits, it could be something straight out of your nightmares.

"Right now, technology is telling us we should be prepared, we should prepare for something like we saw in Japan," said Dr. Eddie Bernard, a Tsunami Expert and former NOAA Director.

Like Bernard, University of Washington seismologist Bill Steele said hidden under the Pacific Ocean is a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off.

"There will be a lot of destruction," Steele said.

Because Washington, Oregon and California are sitting against a huge subduction zone, the area could see see an earthquake and tsunami similar to the one that hit Japan last year.

And now new data just collected from Japan's damaged coastline warns seismologist that the next mega quake to hit the Pacific Northwest could be ever bigger than first thought.

"It means we'll probably get a little more shaking the next time there is a great earthquake here," said John Vidale, a UW professor and the state's seismologist.

Vidale said researchers were surprised to learn this week that the strongest shaking in Japan's quake came from the deepest part of the subduction zone and not the shallow region as scientists expected.

"That's more of a problem for us than Japan because the deeper part of our fault is under the land, under the cities, in Japan the action was mostly off-shore," he said.

Vidale said it's too soon to say how much of an affect that extra shaking will have, but he insists regardless of the strength, our preparation doesn't change.

The "Cascadia Subduction Zone" is about the size of Maine. It's a geological copycat of the zone that ruptured in Japan. Experts believe 90 percent of the damage and 99 percent of the deaths in Japan were caused by the Tsunami.

"The consequences of Cascadia will be more than a city, they will be across a region that could potentially affect 10 million people," said DNR geologist Tim Walsh.

If power isn't lost in the quake, blaring tsunami sirens might offer a roughly ten-minute warning that a monster wall of water is coming.

A tsunami could carve thru the Strait of Juan De Fuca, flooding everything from the Pacific to Bellingham, including rivers that connect to the ocean.

The Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound "choke points" protect cities like Seattle from the worst of tsunamis generated offshore. But Dr. Bernard said the energy could bring enormous waves into the sound, destroying Seattle's waterfront, flooding terminal island and bringing down the viaduct

If the quake doesn't get the viaduct, Walsh said something called "liquefaction" might. That happens when water pressure builds up in soft soil because of violent ground shaking.

Walsh says a big quake will trigger landslides across the region, sheering homes right off their hillside perches.

Even the initial quake itself will feel like an eternity, nothing like the 2001 Nisqually quake that rocked Seattle. And that's most dangerous for tall buildings, long bridges and the above-ground pipelines that won't be able to survive the prolonged tremors.

"We will see shaking well in excess of the force of gravity in horizontal shaking, you won't be able to stand," Steele said.

Japan's quake and tsunami may have been a wake up call, and the new research suggests now more than ever is the time to prepare.

"When you start to feel the earth shake you have to spring into action, this isn't something you wait on and get confirmation," Bernard said. "You just take off cause the consequences of not taking off in this type of phenomenon is you die."

Vidale said he believes the new data regarding the intense action coming from the deepest part of the fault is reliable, because scientists found the same pattern in deadly quakes in Chile and Sumatra.