15 March 2011

The Tsunami in NorCal

Tsunami suckout at 38th Ave, Santa Cruz, by Darren Mason
The tsunami that devastated parts of earthquake-shaken Japan traveled across the Pacific and hit the West Coast of the United States with much less, but still noticeable, force. Although I was at work miles inland, others in the NorCal surf community were standing by near the shoreline when it arrived. We surfers did not disregard the risks, like the potential Darwin-award contenders who walked on the closed beaches. Nor did we flee to much higher ground, like the overly frightened masses who parked their cars at the mountain summit on the highway leading away from the coast, forcing the deployment of a cluster of Port-a-Potties. As waterwomen and watermen, we knew the tsunami was due to arrive at a fairly low tide, and was predicted to be only on the order of 2′-3′ high. So my surf buddies watched from the prudent safety of bluff and cliff tops, and saw the sea suck out below the lowest low tide to reveal bottom contours not seen before, then flow back in minutes later to a mid-tide level, repeating through the morning. While the surge was dramatic, damage in the Bay Area was limited to the hapless Santa Cruz Harbor, where boats broke free to tear up docks and collide with other vessels, pushed by the rapid currents of the ebb and flow of the tidal waves. Farther north, tsunami-focusing Crescent City was unfortunately harder hit.

Some NorCal surfers ignored the closed beach signs and went into the water. They were out to surf, but not to “surf the tsunami”, as many of my coworkers asked; that’s not possible. Indeed, the waves at Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz reportedly got worse, dropping from 5′ to 2′ when the surges hit. Perhaps it’s just hindsight, but this was not the highly dangerous activity the news media made it out to be. As surfers, our senses are attuned to the sea; we keenly feel its moods, and we understand that a 1-foot tide plus a 3-foot tsunami equals a 4-foot water level, well below high tide here in NorCal. We also know that strong currents may shift around wildly when a tsunami hits, and that forecasters are not always right. But there is a little danger inherent in our sport, and for those versed in the ways of the waves, this did not add to it appreciably. Had the tsunami been larger or combined with a high tide, the calculus would have been different.

While I’m not fortunate enough to live on the coast, I do wonder what would happen if an earthquake closer to home triggered a larger tsunami. Experts say a quake in NorCal wouldn’t have the same effect, but one in the Pacific Northwest could result in a tsunami flooding our coast with little warning time. It concerns me that one of my surfing buddies, who lives just up a hill from the beach, found cars parked along his signed tsunami evacuation route that might impede his exit were it necessary to flee farther up and farther in. Their selfishness scared him, he said, more than the tsunami warning. Ignorance of nature is our enemy.

This post first appeared on TheInertia.com.

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