Producer's Notes: Scary Tsunamis
"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
The philosopher George Berkeley posed this philosophical question and a quick internet search found a somewhat scientific answer in an 1894 issue of Scientific American. There they wrote: "Sound is vibration, transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear, and recognized as sound only at our nerve centers. The falling of the tree or any other disturbance will produce vibration of the air. If there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound."
Maybe sometimes vibrations are heard much later, only when the right person is listening.
On January 26, 1700, at about 9:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time one of the largest earthquakes ever to strike the Pacific Northwest rumbled across the Cascadia Subduction Zone. This massive earthquake sent a giant 33 foot high tsunami crashing onto shore, inundating the quiet coastline. While there is no written account describing the earthquake, tsunami or consequential damage, the devastation was enormous.
So wait. If there was no written record, how can we know the exact time and date when the tsunami struck? How can we know how big it was or what kind of damage it did? It took some digging and an impressive bit of scientific detective work by geologist Brian Atwater. First scientists discovered an unusual layer of sand in a marsh area that left a clue that a wave had struck, taken sand from offshore and brought it far inland. The scientists were able to date this thin sand deposit to around 1700, plus or minus 25 to 50 years. Then through tree-ring dating they were able to narrow that down to within five or ten years. Further study of tree roots narrowed it down even further to winter, 1700. Then investigators went to Japan and checked for evidence of a tsunami during that time. They looked for one which did not have a known earthquake associated with it. These were known as “orphan tsunami." There, in the records from 1700, was a tsunami the struck Japan, a wave that had the right pattern, right size, and was generated at the same place, the Cascadia Subduction Zone all the way on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. January 26, 1700, 9:00 p.m.
Can it happen again. Yes. Are we listening?
Watch the Scary Tsunamis television story online.