Eugene-based nature writer Henderson (Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris, 2008, etc.) organizes her narrative around the ways of Pacific tsunamis and the geology underlying them, with a focus on an utterly logical hero: Tom Horning, who, in 1964, barely escaped the freak tidal wave that destroyed much of the region.
Resulting from an Alaskan earthquake, though, that great oceanic swell might not have been as freakish as all that. As Henderson writes, though the average interval between such events was about 240 years in the “southernmost segment of the rupture zone,” the law of probability points to more frequent action along “a coast that only occasionally but devastatingly was wiped clean by giant tsunamis triggered by giant earthquakes.” Naturally, locals—not least Horning, now a geologist—paid close attention to the Japanese tsunami of 2011, and though that did not visit destruction on the Pacific Northwest, it’s pretty clear that even with the programs of retrofitting and building-code upgrading that Henderson describes, the region is likely to suffer greatly once the next big one hits. The author does service in pointing to possible events that have long been overshadowed by projections of the next major earthquake in the vastly more populated areas to the south. Although her prose is more scattershot than the densely layered encyclopedism of John McPhee’s geological writings, she covers a great deal of scientific ground while never losing sight of the human interest side of the story. As with McPhee, there’s poetry to her ground truthing, too: “Sonar alone could not reveal the existence of these ridges; sediments coursing down the Columbia River for millennia had filled and smoothed the bathymetry of the ocean floor here.”
Of more than local interest, though Northwesterners should pay particularly close attention to the news Henderson brings.