… And by the Way, a Tsunami May Hit D.C.

Chatterbox doesn’t know what’s more alarming: the news that Washington, D.C., may get hit by a tsunami, or the press’s apparent lack of interest in this prospect. The tsunami scenario is laid out in the May issue of Geology (click here to see an abstract and a link to the article, which was written by Neal Driscoll of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Jeffrey Weissel of Columbia, and John Goff of the University of Texas). USA Today picked it up May 2 and ran it on Page One. The next day, the Washington Post followed with a Page One story (below the fold), while the New York Times buried it on Page A20 (this in the Washington Final!) and the Washington Times, perhaps revealing its antigovernment bias, dropped four paragraphs into its “Around the Nation” column on A5. Of the three major TV networks, only NBC put the tsunami threat on the evening news.

It falls to Chatterbox, then, to spread panic to those few people who might conceivably care should a 20-foot wall of water slam into the nation’s capital.

True, the most vulnerable areas seem to be Virginia, North Carolina, and the lower Chesapeake Bay. But these places are sparsely populated, relatively speaking, and already get hit routinely by hurricanes. A tsunami probably wouldn’t be a big story on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, whose local economy practically depends on houses getting blown over or washed out to sea at regular intervals. Washington, on the other hand, is so unused to natural disasters of any kind that its inhabitants consider the terms “landslide,” “epicenter,” “blizzard” and “tidal wave” (a synonym for “tsunami” that’s lately fallen out of favor because they’re caused by underwater earthquakes, not tides) to have no meaning at all outside the realm of hackneyed journalistic metaphor. The Geology article doesn’t actually address the possibility that Strom Thurmond, or some other slow-moving senator, might drown in the basement cafeteria of the Hart building, but let’s face it: The Capitol stands not too far from the banks of the Potomac River, as do the swank salons of Georgetown, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Republican political consulting firms that line the streets of Old Town Alexandria, and the airport recently renamed Reagan National. “We’ve shied away from the W word,” Driscoll conceded to USA Today, “but most likely there would some effect there.” According to, the most destructive tsunami in history was probably the one that hit Awa, Japan, in 1703; it killed more than 100,000 people. As recently as 1998, a tsunami that hit Papua New Guinea killed 2,000 people.

The Geology article reports the previously unknown existence of a system of “en echelon cracks” along a 40-kilometer stretch of the outer continental shelf off the Virginia-North Carolina coast. These appear to have been caused by “submarine (i.e., ocean-floor) landslides.” The scientists then describe, in maddeningly casual fashion, the two reasons we should learn more about this underwater geological formation:

First, knowledge about these incipient submarine landslides will lead to a better understanding of how cycles of large-scale slope failure, canyon cutting, and sedimentation interact to create the observed margin morphology. Second [oh yes, we almost forgot to mention this],it is important to understand the hazard implications of these features. Any future submarine landslides nucleating on this en echelon crack system might trigger a tsunami that poses a danger to populations along the adjacent coast [italics Chatterbox’s].

There follows a somewhat pedantic discussion of what can trigger underwater landslides, interesting mainly for its suggestion of “a possible link between recent climate change and submarine slope failure.” (Environmentalists take note: If Trent Lott drowns in the Senate subway, it may be because his party fell for arguments like this one about the Global Climate Change treaty, which the Senate never ratified!) The authors eventually mosey back to what should be the main point:

Given the risk to the coastal community, it seems wise to invest effort to determine whether the en echelon cracks along the Virginia-North Carolina continental shelf edge are fossil features [i.e., remnants of some long-ago geological event that’s unlikely to recur] or are active and likely to produce a potentially dangerous, large submarine slide in the near future.

Chatterbox is pleased to report that in spite of the blasé tone of their article, the three scientists will head out to sea May 6 to examine the en echelon cracks using sonar, and perhaps to install some monitoring equipment. That is, assuming there aren’t any good NBA playoff games that weekend …