Geographical Breakdown of Disasters – West Coast of North America

Natural disasters happen all over the world. If you review a week in the news, you’d likely find stories coming out of the Philippines and Hungary, San Francisco and Japan. We can never really ‘predict’ natural disasters, however, certain areas are susceptible to certain natural disasters. With this, we can always have an idea of what the most likely natural disasters are in our own community. At ePACT, we wanted to provide you with a geographical breakdown of natural disasters around the world to help you with this planning!

So far we’ve travelled from Europe to the east coast of North America, looking at common natural disasters, and today, we turn our attention to the west coast of North America!

Earthquakes – If you live on the west coast, you’ve probably heard the warnings: the big one is coming. It can be terrifying to think about a large-scale disaster happening anytime, from tonight to a few hundred years from now. In 1906, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck San Francisco, and between the earthquake and resulting fires that ensued, over 80% of San Francisco was left in ruins, and is still considered one of the worst natural disasters in US history. Three of the largest earthquakes in Canadian history have occurred along the Queen Charlotte Fault around Haida Gwaii, ranging from 7.4 to 8.1 on the Richter scale. In 2012, a 7.8 magnitude quake struck the islands again, but luckily damage was minimal despite the high rating.

Below is an image from the U.S Geological Survey, which gives you an idea of just how high the risk of earthquakes is throughout the west coast of North America. ePACT is located in North Vancouver, British Columbia, and one of the prime concerns we face is “the big one”: A mega-thrust earthquake that is expected to hit along the west coast sometime in the near future. Do we know when? No. Perhaps it won’t happen in our lifetime, but keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best won’t help us in a time of need. It’s important to get prepared, and ePACT was built to make this easier for both families and organizations!

CaptureForest Fires – The coastal fire region in British Columbia covers approximately 12.8 million hectares of land from the U.S/Canada border, through to the Vancouver and Gulf Islands, the Lower Mainland, Sunshine Coast and Haida Gwaii. With the vast amount of

A wall of fire surrounds Scripps Ranch during the Cedar Fire of 2003. (Photo by John Gibbins / UT San Diego)
A wall of fire surrounds Scripps Ranch during the Cedar Fire of 2003. (Photo by John Gibbins / UT San Diego)

forested land, there have been numerous forest fires in BC, while Washington, Oregon and California have also seen outbreaks. The Chinchaga fire of 1950 burned in British Columbia and Alberta, and is the single largest recorded fire in North American history, covering between 3.5 and 4.2 million acres. In 2003, Southern California saw fifteen wildfires in October alone.

Floods – Whether a city is close to a body of water or further inland, floods can occur. Interestingly in Canada, major flooding has been dominant in the central or east coast of Canada, with the exception of a few events. In California, there is a long history of flooding, and many very costly floods at that. Starting on December 24th 1861, and lasting for 45 days, the largest flood in California’s history, known as the Great Flood of 1862, caused absolute chaos and loss. The flooding was so severe that at the time, newly elected California Governor, Leland Stanford, was forced to travel to his own inauguration ceremony by a rowboat!

Hurricanes – Hurricanes do not commonly occur in the west coast, but if they do, they will typically only affect Mexico. Hurricanes require warm waters to grow and sustain power, and in the Pacific northwest, waters are much cooler to prevent a hurricane from developing or reaching land. In 1959, a hurricane battered Mexico, and was one of the worst “pacific hurricanes” or tropical cyclones to ever hit.

Landslides – Landslides are common along the west coast, and are the result of a cause and trigger. Where the cause is made up of factors that cause a slope to be vulnerable (e.g. wave erosion or steep hillsides), the trigger is the ‘last straw,’ or the event which initiates the landslide. In May of 1980, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake in Washington caused the weak north face of Mount St. Helen’s to slide away in a landslide, resulting in the volcano erupting! The eruption column shot up approximately 80,000 feet and deposited ash and debris into 11 different states. As this example demonstrates, one disaster can easily lead to another!

A nearly 70 foot dock washes to the shore on Agate Beach, along the coast of Oregon. The dock was torn away from a fishing port following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, travelling hundreds of miles across the Pacific. (Photo by AP Photo/Oregon Parks and Recreation, June 6, 2012)
A nearly 70 foot dock washes to the shore on Agate Beach, along the coast of Oregon. The dock was torn away from a fishing port following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, travelling hundreds of miles across the Pacific. (Photo by AP Photo/Oregon Parks and Recreation, June 6, 2012)

Tsunamis – Tsunamis can be devastating forces as we’ve seen from the damage in Thailand in 2004 and Japan in 2011. Tsunamis occur when there is sudden displacement in the sea floor, but can also be triggered by earthquakes, underwater landslides, volcanic eruptions and even meteor or asteroid impact. Most tsunamis occur in the Pacific Ocean, but are not as common along the west coast of North America as they are in the Oceania and Southeast Asia regions. The only tsunami to have caused damage to British Columbia occurred following the earthquake in Alaska in 1964. The main tsunami swept southward down the Pacific Ocean and reached all the way down to California. Even when the west coast is not directly affected by a tsunami, the remnants of tsunamis elsewhere in the Pacific have shown to end up on our shores.

Volcanoes –From Hawaii’s many active volcanoes to those running down the Cascades from British Columbia to California, the west coast has it all. The Cascade volcanoes run almost parallel to the Pacific coast line, and the last volcanic eruption in the area was the 1980 explosion of Mount St. Helen’s in Washington. Mount St. Helen left 57 casualties, and destroyed nearly 300 km of highway, 24 km of railways, 47 bridges, and 250 homes in its path. Hawaii itself emerged from the ocean, coming to life from the power of volcanoes. Kilauea in Hawaii, which has
been erupting continuously since 1983, is one of the few places in the world people can get a first-hand look at an active volcano.

The west coast and Pacific northwest are home to amazing sights and breathtaking nature, but also natural disasters which can be extremely hazardous. Forest fires and volcanoes may give early warnings, but other crises such as earthquakes and landslides may not. So how do you prepare for the unknown? There are many things you can do to prepare yourself for whatever may come your way, and the first step to preparedness is to educate yourself on the risks in your region. Nothing can be a sure thing with natural disasters, but preparedness helps you deal with the circumstances better should you ever find yourself in an emergency situation. Just yesterday, a six year old boy saved his family from great harm by recognizing the siren for a tornado warning and urging his parents to shelter in place.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for our final installment of Geographical Breakdowns of Natural Disasters tomorrow, featuring: The Ring of Fire!

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