The debate in Chapter 4 about “instant of catastrophe” or “decade of terror” on the Cascadia Subduction Zone—whether the next earthquake will be of magnitude 8 or 9—is in part a deterministic discussion. Nothing is said about when such an earthquake will strike, only that such an earthquake of magnitude 9 is possible, or credible. We have estimated the maximum credible (or considered) earthquake, or MCE, on the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
We know the length of the Cascadia Subduction Zone from northern California to Vancouver Island, and, based on slip estimated from other subduction zones worldwide and on our own paleoseismic estimates of the greatest amount of subsidence of coastal marshes during an earthquake (“what has happened can happen”), we can estimate a maximum moment magnitude, assuming that the entire subduction zone ruptures in a single earthquake (Figure 7-2). The moment magnitude of an earthquake rupturing the entire subduction zone at once, with slip estimated from subsidence of marshes, would be about magnitude 9. However, the largest expected earthquake might only rupture only part of the subduction zone with a maximum magnitude of only 8.2 to 8.4. These alternatives are shown in Figure 7-2, remembering that most scientists now favor a MCE of magnitude 9. However, Chris Goldfinger’s work has shown that some earthquakes rupture only the southern part of the subduction zone, as illustrated in the middle and righthand maps in Figure 7-2.
Some probability is built into a deterministic assessment. A nuclear power plant is a critical facility and should be designed for a maximum considered earthquake, even if the recurrence time for it is measured in tens of thousands of years. The result of an earthquake-induced failure of the core reactor would be catastrophic, even if it is very unlikely. The importance of this is illustrated by the failure of the Tokyo Electric Power Company to allow for the possibility of an earthquake as large as M 9 for the Tohoku nuclear power plant and offshore, resulting in nuclear contamination of nearby lands and the Pacific Ocean. Yet there is a limit. The possibility that the Pacific Northwest might be struck by a comet or asteroid, producing a version of nuclear winter and mass extinction of organisms (including ourselves), is real but is so remote, measured in tens of millions of years, that we do not incorporate it into our preparedness planning.
In the Puget Sound region, three deterministic estimates are possible: a magnitude 9 earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the MCE on a crustal fault such as the Seattle Fault, and the MCE on the underlying Juan de Fuca Plate, which has produced most of the damage in the region to date. It is difficult to determine the MCE for the Juan de Fuca Plate; scientists guess that the 1949 earthquake of M 7.1 is about as large as a slab earthquake will get. However, the deep oceanic slab beneath Bolivia in South America generated an earthquake greater than M 8, so we really don’t know what the MCE for the Juan de Fuca Plate should be. We will discuss the MCE on the Seattle fault after describing the Gutenberg-Richter relationship.