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Professor co-authors risk study of tsunamis


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Sacramento State geography Professor Mathew Schmidtlein is one of four authors of a new study revealing that many coastal communities are still at risk from earthquake-generated tsunamis.

Tens of thousands of people along the U.S. Pacific Northwest coastline may not have enough time to evacuate low-lying areas before tsunami waves arrive, according to the publication by researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Colorado at Boulder, and Sacramento State.

Sacramento State geography Professor Mathew Schmidtlein, one of four co-authors of an important recent study of tsunami risk in the Northwest United States.

“All coastal communities in the U.S. Pacific Northwest are vulnerable to varying degrees to tsunami hazards from a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake,” said Dr. Nathan Wood, lead author of the study and scientist with the USGS. “Having a better sense of how a community is specifically vulnerable provides officials with the ability to develop outreach, preparedness, and evacuation plans that are tailored to local conditions and needs.”

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a “megathrust” fault off the west coast of North America. It marks the location where one tectonic plate is pushing underneath a second plate.

The authors, who also include Jeanne Jones and Seth Spielman, detail their findings in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They examined the 49 cities, seven tribal reservations and 17 counties from Northern California through northern Washington that are directly threatened by tsunami waves that could be generated by a future Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. The scientists evaluated the number of people or businesses exposed to tsunami hazards, as well as demographics and evacuation time by foot for each of these communities.

In their analysis, scientists found that coastal communities fell into one of three groups differentiated by the size of their population and the time it would take to safely evacuate people.

Communities in the first group have relatively small populations in tsunami hazard zones and likely have sufficient time to evacuate, suggesting the need for tsunami education. A second group of communities has large populations in tsunami hazard zones and likely will have sufficient time to evacuate if people are able to move quickly, suggesting a need for evacuation training. The third group of communities has moderate-size populations in tsunami hazard zones, but insufficient time for everyone to evacuate before wave arrival, suggesting the need for solutions such as vertical-evacuation refuges.

“This new research confirms the underlying need for continuing the important public education efforts to ensure coastal residents know how to reach safety in the event of a tsunami,” says John Schelling, Earthquake & Tsunami Program manager for the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division. “Perhaps more importantly, this research confirms the need for continued implementation of the multi-agency collaboration known as ‘Project Safe Haven,’ and ensuring communities on the Washington coast have tsunami vertical evacuation refuges from which to escape a tsunami.”

“One of the aspects of this project I really enjoy is that it puts forward an alternative approach for assessing community vulnerability to tsunamis, one that aims to provide local emergency managers with a better understanding not just of the challenges they face, but strategies they could pursue to address those challenges,” Schmidtlein says.

“Identifying communities with similar tsunami hazard vulnerabilities will build a regional network among officials to share success stories of risk reduction and create opportunities for collaboration,” Wood says. “Our goal was to provide officials with actionable information for saving lives with community-specific interventions.”

The study was released April 13 and, within days, had been picked up and reprinted in a number of publications and online worldwide.

“It is really exciting to have the work published in so visible an outlet,” Schmidtlein says. “My ultimate hope is that I can do research that will have a real impact in helping to improve disaster outcomes.”

The full study, “Community Clusters of Tsunami Vulnerability in the U.S. Pacific Northwest,” is available from the journal publisher at

The USGS is leading studies of community vulnerability to various natural hazards through its Land Chance Science Program ( For further information on this study and other current projects across the United States, visit the USGS Risk and Vulnerability to Natural Hazards project ( For media assistance, call Sacramento State’s Public Affairs office at (916) 278-6156. – Craig Koscho