My wife grew up in Washington and told me it was literally impossible for a hurricane to hit the Washington coast.
I was pretty confused, then, when we were looking to move to Oregon and she was emphatic that we stay away from flood and tsunami zones. Wait, what? Isn’t a tsunami and a hurricane basically the same thing? I thought the coasts of the Pacific Northwest were generally free of natural disasters.
It turns out that I was wrong. I guess there’s a first for everything.
Long story short, Washington is quite safe from most natural disasters. It’s unlikely that you’ll see Washington State (or any other part of the PNW) on the news needing cleanup after a massive storm. Those are reserved for tropical areas. There are however several types of natural disasters that occur in Washington.
Washington is generally free from hurricanes, tornadoes, and major earthquakes. The most common natural disasters include floods, wildfires, and severe storms.
However, that doesn’t mean you won’t experience one or more of the “big” natural disasters in your lifetime. Let’s talk about how common they are and if you should expect one near you soon.
Earthquakes In Washington State
Every year the state of Washington is hit by nearly 1,000 earthquakes. However, even if you live here you might never have felt one. 99% of these earthquakes are too minor to be felt by humans and pass by unnoticed.
But that’s not to say that big earthquakes haven’t happened or won’t happen in Washington State.
When it comes to states most at risk for major earthquakes, most scientific lists place Washington in either the 4th or 5th position.
The major cause for this is that there are three enormous fault lines that run through the state. Any one of these has the potential to cause a major earthquake as well as corollary disasters such as landslides, wildfires, and, of course, a massive tsunami.
The largest of these faults is the Cascade Subduction Zone which runs parallel to the Pacific Coast all the way from California into Canada. It if slipped, it is capable of producing a 9.0 magnitude quake which could last for several minutes, causing a massive tsunami and devastating coasting cities such as Seattle.
According to many sources, this quake could potentially be the largest one that has ever been experienced in North America.
However, the chance of major quakes from year to year remains slight.
The most recent major earthquake to hit Washington happened more than 20 years ago. The Nisqually Earthquake’s epicenter was in the southern region of the Puget Sound (northeast of Olympia, Washington) but it was felt through eastern Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and even Idaho. In other words, the entire PNW.
The quake lasted less than a minute but injured over 400 people during that time as well as caused between $1 and $4 billion worth of damages to property.
So, while even Washington residents don’t think much of earthquakes, if you’re in the PNW you should take seriously the possibility of a significant earthquake and know what you’re going to do if one hits. Because it’s only a matter of time.
Tornadoes In Washington State
If you live in the PNW you can probably cross tornadoes off your list of things to be terrified of. While there are 2-3 “official” tornadoes every year in Washington, many people would not even recognize them as such.
The tornadoes that do occur are generally classified as an EF-0 or (rarely) an EF-1. According to the National Weather Service, if you experience an EF-0 you can expect gusts of wind up to 72mph which can damage chimneys, break branches off of trees, damage sign boards, etc.
In other words, it’s just a really bad windstorm.
The Washington coast is quite safe from tornadoes as the majority of them tend to form in the eastern part of the state. However, the worst tornado to ever hit Washington (in recorded history) happened in Vancouver, Washington in 1972. It was rated as an EF-3 (winds up to 206mph) and injured over 300 people.
So, while the chances of a serious problem are slight, if you live in the PNW long enough you’ll probably come in contact with a tornado of some variety.
Hurricanes In Washington State
Washington State does not experience hurricanes, ever. It’s impossible. But it’s mostly impossible due to semantics, let me explain.
Hurricanes, by definition, are tropical and require an option temperature of at least 80° F to form.
In Washington State, we get “typhoons”. Or at least we have the potential to.
Because of the Coriolis Effect (Earth’s Axis Rotation), most severe windstorms in the Pacific track north/northwest away from North America and toward Asia.
However, there is the potential for non-hurricane severe windstorms to hit the Washington Coast. While there have been quite a few severe windstorms in the past 100 years (and they appear to be increasing in frequency) the possibility of a significantly-damaging storm remains quite low.
|Average Peak Instant Gust (mph)||Windstorm Category||Approximate Return Interval|
|39-44||Minor||Several per year|
|55-64||Major||Once every 2–3 years|
|65-74||Extreme||Once every 5–10 years|
|75+||Phenomenal||Once every 25–50 years|
So, names aside, Seattle and the surrounding area are prone to massive wind storms.
It just won’t be a hurricane and, most likely, won’t be a typhoon or cyclone.
The Most Common Natural Disasters In Washington State
Hopefully, I’ve been able to lay some of your fears to rest in regards to earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes in Washington State.
So let’s talk about some of the three things that you should be fearing instead.
Significant flooding occurs in Washington nearly every year and “severe” flooding (according to the US Geological Survey) happens about every 5 years.
The area most affected by floods tend to be clustered together in areas that are receiving far more rain than normal. As the coastal areas (such as Seattle) typically get large amounts of rain it is unusual for those areas to flood.
Wildfires have been a major concern in Washington state recently with more than 1,000 uncontrolled wildfires occurring every year. And it’s not just the areas that have actual flames that are in trouble.
Seattle and the entire coast spend several months of the summer covered in a haze of smoke from wildfires throughout the state of Washington as well as Oregon and Idaho.
Landslides are commonplace in areas that are having severe flooding. Every year there are several large landslides in Washington although many of these take place well away from civilization.
So, while landslides are a major destructive force in Washington, they are rarely dangerous for those living in cities.
The above three are in addition to normal “storms” of varying severity that Washington state experiences throughout the year.
So while you don’t have to worry about hurricanes (which is a load off my mind) there are still plenty of other ways that Mother Nature can wipe you off the face of the earth in Washington.
Oh and we didn’t even mention the PNW’s 10 active volcanoes which have the potential to obliterate the entire state at some future point.