Unearthing Proof of a Tsunami in the Northwest

The threat posed to coastal areas by massive tsunami flooding gained new attention after the Indian Ocean catastrophe that killed 200,000 in December. Now scientists say that a similar tsunami hit the Pacific Northwest in 1700 — and it may happen again.

As the Pacific Country Emergency Management Agency prepares residents along the Washington and Oregon coasts for that possibility, scientists are learning more about the region's tumultuous past. Situated along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, it has seen years of large earthquakes and flooding.

Geologist Brian Atwater of the U.S. Geological Survey has made many discoveries on the area's Niawiakum River, exposing the history of the land and the peoples who lived there. A layer of beach sand — and data from Japan, where records extend centuries beyond U.S. accounts — helped him pinpoint the date of a tsunami that he believes rivaled the Indian Ocean flood: Jan. 26, 1700. Experts say another tsunami may strike in the next 100 years.

Geologist Brian Atwater

Geologist Brian Atwater was named one of Time magazine's Most Influential People last month. Barry Gordemer, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Barry Gordemer, NPR

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