Book review: Cascadia’s fault

Cascadia’s Fault- the coming earthquake and tsunami that could devastate North America. By Jerry Thompson. 2011. Berkeley, Counterpoint Press. 337 pages.

This book chronicles the scientific discoveries that led to the recognition that giant earthquakes have and will again rock the Cascadia Subduction Zone. I was very put-off by the obviously sensationalist subtitle, but I’ll lay that at the door of the publisher. Gotta sell those books.

Jerry Thompson is a  journalist and documentary filmmaker living in British Columbia. He has been following the developing story of the Cascadia fault for 30 years. His expressed goal with the book is to make the public “sit up, pay attention, and get ready”.

The book’s strong point is the science history. Thompson follows the geologic story, from the recognition of plate tectonics (mercifully brief) through the hot debate about whether there even was active subduction in Cascadia, then the arguments over whether there were any earthquakes, how big, when, and finally how frequent. That story makes the book worth reading. A drawback is the lack of diagrams. There is a single map of the Cascadia subduction zone. The reader is left to imagine the process of compression and deformation at a locked subduction zone and the release at the moment of the earthquake. Indeed, the reader must first mentally visualize what a cross section through a subduction zone might look like. Readers of this website can probably all do that, but if Thompson wants to reach the general public, then I consider this a glaring weakness. There are a few black and white photos of past disasters (San Francisco 1906, Loma Prieta 1989, Alaska 1964, Mexico City 1985). The final chapter is a scenario of the next magnitude 9 earthquake in Cascadia, which the author believes would have the social and economic impact of 5 Hurricane Katrinas. There is also an interesting chapter on the scientific debate over whether to put megafunding into efforts at earthquake prediction vs. earthquake preparedness.

The book is something of a companion to Brian Atwater’s marvelous Orphan Tsunami, which is profusely illustrated, but which doesn’t tell nearly as much of the background of the science. Cascadia’s Fault is due in paperback early in 2012. There are a number of copies available in the Bellingham-Whatcom County libraries.

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