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Scientist Kirk Johnson, who grew up in the Seattle area, is the host of Nova’s “Making North America,” a three-part series that debuts Nov. 4 on PBS stations nationwide. Credit: PBS.

There is no such thing as earthquake season. A crippling temblor can strike at any time, with very little warning and no indication of its severity. This fact makes living in the Pacific Northwest — and indeed, on the West Coast of the United States in general – a serious gamble. That has always been the case.

It’s also part of the ongoing process of the North America’s creation, explored in Nova’s “Making North America,” a three-part series hosted by Kirk Johnson, a renowned scientist who grew up in the Seattle area.

In any other year, a Nova special about geology would seem about as appealing as watching lava harden. Think about it. When was the last time you had a deep, illuminating conversation with a rockhound, let alone a geologist? It’s a safe bet the answer is…never.

“Geology has done a disservice to itself by being boring,” Johnson said. “There’s too much jargon, and so many variables. ‘Plus or minus a million years’…there are a lot of unknowns. And then you get a bunch of geologists in a room, and they immediately argue details and use jargon without being specific. …It takes what is a truly compelling and highly relevant topic, and just makes it boring.”

Well, thanks to Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker article in July about the inevitable earthquake that could devastate the Pacific Northwest any day now, geology just got a heck of a lot more relevant. That means “Making North America” is hitting the air just in the nick of time.

Premiering Nov. 4, the Nova series examines of the emergence and eventual extinction of dinosaurs in North America – usually the sexy stuff — leading up to the eventual proliferation of humans and our impact on the landscape.

But if you’re a resident of Washington, Oregon or California, you may want to pay close attention to part one, “Origins.” This hour explores the geologic shifts that created North America and depicts some amazing, long-gone geographic wonders through computer graphics illustration. Gigantic mountains surround Manhattan, dwarfing its tallest skyscrapers. Layers of the Grand Canyon are rendered as they once were, as a shallow ocean.

“Origins” drives home the truth that the landmass we call home is constantly under construction. The Western shore of this continent is simply the youngest portion of that structure making it more susceptible to drastic shifts and changes.

“It’s thrilling stuff,” Johnson said. “Or terrifying, depending on how you’re looking at it.”

As the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Johnson has a PhD in geology and paleobotany from Yale. He’s one of the foremost experts on what’s happening, and has happened, to the ground beneath us.

Kirk Johnson in "Making North America." Credit: PBS
Kirk Johnson in “Making North America.” Credit: PBS

“I think the New Yorker article was a great wake-up call for the region, because people don’t think about geology,” he declared. “In most places, geology isn’t truly dangerous. But in the Pacific Northwest, it truly is dangerous.”

The volatility of the Pacific Northwest, from a geological point of view, can be attributed to our region’s relative youth.

“When there were dinosaurs in Colorado, there wasn’t even a Washington. Where Washington is now, there was sea. We’re stacking stuff on to the Western side of North America. And so, much of Washington is pretty recent in age,” Johnson said.

How recent? Johnson said that the entire Olympia Peninsula is composed of rocks that were sea floor mud 35 million years ago, and were subsequently folded up and squished to make the Olympic Mountains. “Thirty million years, in geologic time, is chump change.”

Yet thanks to our temperate climate and the surging tech boom, the populations of Seattle, Portland and other West Coast cities continue to swell. Seattle recovered from 2001’s Nisqually quake relatively quickly, after all, so certainly the benefits of living here are well worth the risk of having to replace a few dishes and shelves every few years, right?

If you genuinely feel this way, you haven’t been paying attention.

Then again, don’t pack up the moving van just yet.

A lot of the reason that we know so much about the imminent danger posed by the Cascadia subduction zone is because the technology is better. Geologists and seismologists now have many more remote sensing tools at their disposal to map our landscape and what’s going on underneath it, and to monitor and predict any changes on the horizon.

“Now we can say we know more about it, do we fear it more, or less?” Johnson asked.

A healthy combination of both is probably in order. Instead of moving, the “Making North America” host advised Pacific Northwest residents to simply consider where he or she lives.

“You don’t want to be sleeping in a place where there would be an instantaneous thing that takes you out,” he said. The major risks come not from the quake itself but what that quake could kick off, Johnson added, including tsunamis and mudflows known as lahars.

“If you live in the valley floor that drains Mount Rainier – and if you’ve driven up there, you’ve seen those lahar evacuation signs – if you live down below where the lahar can come, you are gambling to a certain degree,” he said.

“If you live on the coast, where a tsunami could hit, in a tsunami zone? You’re gambling. And if you live in a place where you can get out easily, you’re gambling less than if you live in a place where it’s hard to get out.”

What about Seattle? While city residents have little to fear in terms of being hit by a tsunami, thanks to protection afforded by the Sound and the Olympic Peninsula, “if you have waterfront property in Seattle….” Johnson pauses, before adding, “there are issues. And this is where understanding geologic time is really important. Because if something happened a million years ago, you can probably be pretty comfortable.”

“That big Cascadia earthquake, though…the deductive work they found shows very clearly that a really big one happened in the year 1700 – January 27, 1700. They know precisely when it happened, from historical records in Japan, and the tree rings in Washington.”

What it comes down to, according to Johnson, is risk assessment and preparedness. “That’s what people in Seattle need to be doing now. We can’t predict the future, but we know a lot more than we did 35 years ago. And we know how to put parameters on the risk. Location is important, and context is important.”

Yes, context. “People are so used to catastrophic or nothing. They think about apocalypse, when it’s actually kind of gradational. Just be smart about how you think about things. Don’t be overly worried about it.”

And in spite of all the warnings we’ve read about recently from the New Yorker to regional news sources, the “Making North America” host believes enjoying the Pacific Northwest is well-worth the potential geological risk. “I’d still go live there.”

Nova’s “Making North America” airs at 9pm Wednesdays, Nov. 4, 11, and 18, on PBS member stations nationwide. For more context on the Cascadia earthquake threat, read this recent IAmAReddit thread featuring Northwest-based earthquake experts.

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