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​How to Think About the Biggest Earthquake Ever

How science fiction can help you survive an earthquake.
March 3, 2016, 5:00am

Terraform editor Brian Merchant spoke to author Adam Rothstein about this series for Radio Motherboard, which is available on iTunes and all podcast apps.

So scientists are saying an earthquake—a quake that is so big and so powerful you probably can't even properly comprehend it—is probably going to hit your city, hard. It could be five years out, ten years, fifty years, or it could be tomorrow. But it's going to come. How do we go about organizing that kind of information in our brains? How do we understand it on a rational, sensible level? Then, what do we do about it?


We can write science fiction stories about it, for one thing. That's what the archivist, researcher, and writer Adam Rothstein has done. Rothstein spent many months poring over every available emergency document, seismic evaluation, and scientific study carried out on the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake scenario that he could get his hands on. That quake, scientists say, will be of a magnitude up to 9.3 Mw—perhaps the biggest to hit the continental US in our nation's history.

Last year, Kathryn Shulz published "The Really Big One" in the New Yorker. The story introduced, for many audiences, the prospect of a CSZ earthquake, which many geologists say is actually overdue. The article went viral, and left just about everyone in the Pacific Northwest terrified. But the fact that the quake is coming is only a small sliver of the story—what happens when it does is, arguably, the most important part, at least from a humanistic point of view.

So this week, Terraform, our future fiction outfit, published Rothstein's intensely reported 5-part story about what, precisely, may happen after the Big One. When we chatted for the podcast, Rothstein told me that one of his chief aims was to get people thinking about the next steps, after the awareness-raising.

"Lots of people I know just figure they'll be dead," he told me, despite the fact that your chances of surviving the initial quake in an inland metropolis like Portland are very high. So the point of the story is to render the future less apocalyptic and more productive. Imagining the nitty gritty details of the calamities—not always outright tragedies—that will befall us, will help us prepare to assist our neighbors, to endure the resource-starved days, and compel us to arrange and maintain good earthquake kits.

So far, his story seems to be having its desired effect.

"All I will say is that it worked," the urbanist and writer Alissa Walker writes of the piece at io9. "Let's also hope all major cities in seismic areas will undertake a similar scenario-writing exercise and perhaps even work with local sci-fi writers. This series certainly got me far more motivated to get prepared than any other piece about earthquakes that I've researched or read myself."

Clearly, not everyone will have such a positive reaction; but that is, for Rothstein, the desired effect: comprehension of a potentially far-off and difficult future, and preparation for its coming. Listen in for more for our discussion of the story's genesis, what will happen to Portland in the wake of the quake, and science fiction's role in charting out our plausible futures.