Sociological Ruminations

A blog about non-fiction books that address societal issues and problems

The Next Tsunami: Living on a Restless Coast by Bonnie Henderson

Book Review: The Next Tsunami: Living on a Restless Coast (Oregon State University Press, 2014) by Bonnie Henderson.  Non-fiction (306 pages)

Last spring, I visited the very beautiful state of Oregon for the first time, and I fell in love with the state’s gorgeous rocky coast.  While sight-seeing in Seaside, which is a small coastal town in the northern part of the state, I noticed a copy of The Next Tsunami: Living on a Restless Coast in the window of a bookstore.  Seaside is the setting where the opening of the book takes place, and it’s also the setting where the book concludes.  Contrary to what the title may imply, the book is not sensational.  Throughout much of the book, Bonnie Henderson depicts the scientific discoveries and transformations in scholarly thought that have taken place within the field of geology during the last several decades.  These scientific discoveries point to the need for coastal residents in the Pacific Northwest to prepare for the possibility of a major earthquake and subsequent tsunami.  In particular, Seaside and the nearby city of Cannon Beach are low-lying cities that would be among the most vulnerable if a tsunami occurred.  Henderson points out that compared to other cities on the West Coast, “Seaside’s vulnerability to every category of tsunami mayhem is so high it makes the city, statistically speaking, an outlier” (p. 2).

Even though the book is non-fiction, Henderson writes it almost as though writing a novel.  Much of the book is about Tom Horning who grew up in Seaside and ultimately became a geologist.  He currently lives in Seaside and advocates for public awareness and tsunami preparedness.  The book opens with a discussion of a 9.2 earthquake that occurred in Alaska on March 27, 1964, which was Good Friday.  The earthquake triggered tsunami waves along the West Coast.  Tom, who was a child at the time, lived through this tsunami.  However, as the book points out, there is a difference between a distant tsunami versus a local tsunami.  A distant tsunami is generated by an earthquake that is far away.  It takes hours for this type of tsunami to arrive, which means that people have time to evacuate, and the damage is unlikely to be catastrophic.  A local tsunami is generated by an earthquake nearby (right off the coast), and there is little time (possibly less than 30 minutes) to evacuate.  In the event of a local tsunami, the earthquake itself would be the only warning to evacuate.  For people in Seaside, the 1964 tsunami was a distant tsunami — it traveled from Alaska and took about four hours to arrive.  Therefore, the damage (such as flooding and the destruction of a bridge) was not as great as the damage that would have resulted from a local tsunami.  (Although the tsunami caused deaths along the West Coast, the book focuses primarily on how it impacted Seaside).

Henderson interweaves the story of Tom’s life with the stories of geological discoveries that have taken place throughout the twentieth century.  When the tsunami struck in 1964, scientists knew very little about what causes earthquakes and tsunamis.  Since then, much has been discovered.  A key discovery has been that the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which is located along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, is not dormant as scientists previously thought; instead, it’s capable of producing earthquakes.  A major earthquake could result in a local tsunami.

The book delves into the various attempts that scientists have made to uncover information about previous major earthquakes and tsunamis that have occurred along the coast of the Pacific Northwest.  In order to do this, methods such as dendrochronology and marsh coring have been used.  Dendrochronology, which began in the early 20th century, involves the study of tree-rings in order to determine certain things such as whether groups of trees all died at the same time.  Besides dendrochonology, marsh coring is used.  This practice (which I struggled a bit to understand) involves use of a pipe or tube shaped object that is put deep into the earth and then used to extract layers of mud and dirt.  The cores are taken back to a lab and split open, and an examination of the layers of dirt (which are quite old) can provide evidence of a tsunami if sand layers are found on top of marsh soils (or something like that…it’s kind of hard to understand).  The book describes marsh coring that resulted in “evidence of tsunami surges rolling in and dumping sand on top of the suddenly sunken coastline” (p. 103).  Information about previous earthquakes and tsunamis in the Pacific Northwest also comes from very old written records in Japan and from oral traditions of various Native American tribes that have lived along the West Coast.  For me, the information about these stories passed down through the generations among Native Americans was probably the most fascinating aspect of the book (although this section of the book is fairly brief).  Amazingly, scientists have been able to use these various sources of information in order to establish the exact date that the last local tsunami occurred along the Oregon coast: January 26, 1700.

Although I enjoyed the story of Tom’s life, I wish that the rest of the book seemed just a little bit more user-friendly for readers such as myself who have never studied geology.  Although the scientific information is presented in a fairly accessible manner, the book could be even more beneficial for the general public if it included a glossary of geological terms such as subduction, turbidites, liquefaction, coring, gouge corer, subsidence, and stratigraphy.  I am also a visual learner, so illustrations of some of these scientific concepts would have been interesting for me.  In addition, I wish that the book included a few photos of the aftermath of tsunamis.  The book does not contain any photos of the aftermath of the 1964 tsunami even though there is a discussion of Tom Horning’s efforts to gather first-hand accounts and photos from people who remember this tsunami.  Toward the end of the book, the author discusses a photo of an actual tsunami.  This photo was presented by a researcher named Nobuo Shuto at a conference that Tom Horning attended.  Perhaps there are copyright issues, but I would have loved to see this photo. Here is what the book says about the photo:

Shuto clicked, and a new image appeared on the screen: a grainy black-and-white photograph, hard to make out at first.  As Tom stared, he realized it was a huge wall of water, splashing against something and filled with debris.  What kind of debris, he couldn’t quite make out; it just looked messy.  It was, Shuto explained, a rare photo of an actual tsunami.  Because tsunamis happen quickly, without warning beyond the earthquake that can precede it by mere minutes, and because those close enough to snap a picture don’t tend to survive, few photos of them existed.

The photo shouldn’t have surprised Tom, but it did.  He knew tsunamis pick up debris, had seen it himself as a child, the sharp angles of household goods and whole trees streaming out the mouth of the bay, silhouetted by car headlights and the lights of the houses at Little Beach.  But seeing the photo somehow brought it home to him: it’s not so much the water that kills in a tsunami; it’s all the stuff in the water.  In his mind, he was watching boulders rolling underwater, cars bobbing and bumping on the surface, uprooted Sitka spruce tumbling past second-story windows, those windows blowing out, the buildings themselves breaking loose.

This — Shuto’s presentation — was what his neighbors in Seaside needed to see and hear and prepare for, Tom realized.  This is what we, or our children or their grandchildren, will someday face.  Water, and a whole lot more.  Death, unless we’re able to get ourselves over a river and a creek and up a hill (p. 237).

Overall, I learned a lot from this book.  Prior to my trip to Oregon, I did not even realize that local tsunamis had ever touched the U.S. coastline.  After reading this book, I am more familiar with the rich body of knowledge and research out there.  It’s surprising to realize how recent so many of these geological discoveries really are.  This book will be particularly enjoyable for anyone whose heart has been captured by the small towns along the Oregon coast — I fell in love with Cannon Beach, and I really enjoyed the parts of the book that focused on this particular city.  The book is also a must-read for anyone who lives in (or travels in) the Pacific Northwest or for anyone who simply wants to become more informed about the potential for natural disasters in the U.S.

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