Japan was rocked by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake on Friday, the strongest ever recorded in a nation that has been an historic victim of the seismic events. According to the Associated Press, the subsequent tsunami, residual flooding, and massive aftershocks have created a series of cascading events that are pushing the island nation’s recovery efforts to their limits. With more than 200,000 displaced, an estimated 10,000 or more dead, basic infrastructure failures and the quick depletion of life-sustaining necessities, the situation may get worse. Americans taking in the news can’t help but wonder: What if a tsunami hit a city like Seattle? Or New York? Is it possible?
Because the earthquake generated the wave westward, Japan took the brunt of waves cresting over 30 feet in height. History tells us it could have been far worse. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 generated 80-foot waves, killing nearly 300,000 people. The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa was so violent, it produced waves cresting at 130 feet, killing nearly 40,000 people.
But could a doomsday tsunami be generated and hit an American city? The Daily Galaxy reported a wall of water estimated at 1,700 feet high (nearly three times the height of Seattle’s Space Needle) slammed into the Alaskan coastline in 1858 when an 8.3 magnitude earthquake occurred along the southern edge of the Aleutian Islands.
National Geographic reports that in 1700, a slippage in the Cascadia Subduction Zone along the Pacific Northwest coast not only generated a tsunami that hit the West Coast, but Japan experienced waves that crested at more than 15 feet as well. And scientists say it will happen again.
However, when the area was hit in 1700, there were small indigenous populations. Now there are more than 4 million people that inhabit just the Seattle metropolitan area. Portland, Ore., just 150 miles south, has a metropolitan area of more than 2 million. Vancouver, British Columbia, to the north, has a comparable population. Like the Miyagi Prefecture where the Japan earthquake and tsunami struck, millions of individuals would not only feel the immediate impact but also the cascading ramifications.
And New York City? Could that city of more than 8 million — more than 19 million metro — be hit by a tsunami?
According to a model put together by Steven Ward and Simon Day in 2001, such an event could occur. Following a landslide generated by volcanic activity in the Canary Islands, a massive displacement could occur that would generate massive tsunami waves across the Atlantic, potentially washing ashore from South America to northern Canada. A worst-case scenario model shows 65- to 75-foot-tall waves hitting the Eastern seaboard of the United States within eight hours.
There are more than a few who wonder whether or not American cities are prepared for such an event. Or could the world see a repeat of Hurricane Katrina — or worse?