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The Orphan Tsunami of 1700: Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Brian F. Atwater

The outside world scarcely knew of northwestern North America in the year 1700. The Pacific coast, from southcentral Alaska to Oregon's Cape Blanco, was uncharted until the Spanish and English explorations of the 1770s. Yet, when tectonic plates suddenly … see full wiki

Author: Brian F. Atwater
Genre: Science
Publisher: University of Washington Press / U.S. Geological Survey
1 review about The Orphan Tsunami of 1700: Japanese Clues...

Fascinating detective work eccentrically presented

  • Feb 15, 2006
On January 26, 1700, a tsunami struck eastern Japan. Because they had experienced no preceding earthquake to explain the wave, contemporary Japanese writers recorded the event as an "orphan tsunami." Almost three centuries later, scientists in the western United States and Canada uncovered evidence of a massive earthquake (more or less a 9 on the modern scale) having occurred here at about that same time. This book presents the evidence for naming that quake the "parent" of the orphan tsunami, and also draws some conclusions about what an earthquake of that size might mean for 21st-century Cascadia.

There's an awful lot packed into this small book, and it's a fine example of how earth sciences, history, and other disciplines can work together to break new ground (so to speak) in our understanding of the past. But the way it's all presented in these pages? Oy. It kind of reminded me of the stereotypical mad scientist: you know he's a genius, but as he rushes around his lab, talking really quickly, pulling up charts and graphs and drawing on the chalkboard to prove his theories, all you can think is, "this guy is nuts."

In this case, the authors and their layout artists really went wild. From beginning to end, the book is a riot of old maps and new photos, illustrations, excerpts from Japanese and American diaries and records, line-by-line translations of Japanese reports, different-colored text blocks for sidebar articles, big two-paragraph-long photo captions, little illustrations of tectonic forces at work, screenshots from computer programs, and a lot more, all jumbled together. Although the information is interesting, I found sorting out the visual presentation tiring at times. Moreover, each two-page spread is like its own mini-chapter, with its own headline and point it's attempting to make. It is an innovative way to present scientific information (at least, I can't think of any book quite like it), but I'm not sure the method is quite perfected yet.

Still, I'm a non-scientist and I found it worth the effort to read this. And as someone living in the Cascadian earthquake region, it had more than a little personal relevance too.

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