The recent tsunami devastation in South Asia is arguably the worst natural disaster ever. The fact that it occurred on the other side of the globe may make it seem like something remote. After all, a tsunami could never strike North
America. Or could it?
Actually, it could – and has – happened here.
Several times, in fact:
■ In 1946, an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter Scale in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska set off a tsunami that killed 165 people;
■ In 1960, a 9.5 earthquake off the coast of Chile triggered a tsunami affecting the entire Pacific Rim killing at least 65 people; and
■ In 1964, 120 people in Washington, California and Hawaii were killed by a tsunami that reached over 30 feet that was caused by a 9.2 earthquake near Anchorage, Alaska.
And it could happen again, most likely on the Pacific Coast. Probably the greatest risk to North America, according to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, would be a tsunami generated by an earthquake along the so-called Cascadia subduction zone 50 miles off the coast stretching from Vancouver to Northern California.
This is where the Juan de Fuca plate dives under North America and generates friction intense enough to set off tsunamis like the one that hit South Asia. Vancouver Island is especially vulnerable.
A tsunami in the Atlantic Ocean is also possible but much more remote a risk. Conversely, because the threat is smaller, there aren’t warning stations in place in the east like there are on the Pacific Coast (for example, in British Columbia, the Provincial Emergency Program gets alerts and warnings from the West Coast of Alaska and relays them to people in the province). So if a tsunami did strike the eastern part of North America, it could be especially disastrous.