Excerpt: Fracture zone


(A hotel or convention meeting room. A single spot is brought up on Hugh, standing upstage right at a lectern. The remaining set is dark.)


Good morning. I’d like to thank you for coming to this annual emergency preparedness briefing for municipal and provincial planners. I am Dr. Hugh Ferguson and I’ll be with you for the next hour discussing potential seismological threats.

Let me start with this point. Whenever we look at something, our perceptions are based on our experience. I am a geologist, a seismologist, actually. This gives me a certain different way of looking at the world than most people.

The biggest difference is that you look around and see solid ground, rocks, soil. Me, I see islands. The ground we stand on, the surface of the earth is the crust. It floats on the mantle, a layer of molten rock, sitting below it. And, the crust, itself, is not a single piece of rock. Rather, it is a group of pieces, plates, islands in an ocean we never see.

Most people in the world think of islands as fixed. They’re not, really. They’re eroded by wind and water and constantly, but slowly changing. The plates are not fixed, either. The crust surface is constantly moving, with plates sliding back and forth across the mantle. When their edges push together, the force of that collision forms mountains. When one is pushed below the other, “subducts” in technical terms, the materials are returned to the mantle and are later ejected from volcanoes or sea floor fractures to become part of the crust again.

But this complex and intricate dance is not without risk. As two rough surfaces slide together, they often stick. Picture rubbing your hands together.

(HUGH holds his hands in front of him, sliding hands across each other.)

But, think in terms of what happens when your hands don’t slide.

(His fingers slide across each hand.)

The front end of a plate sliding stops moving, but the force behind it is still there. Off the coast of Vancouver Island, this is exactly what happens. One plate is trying to slide beneath the other but locks and doesn’t move. It tries to move at a rate of 40 mm a year. It’s been trying to do this since the year 1700.

Eventually, that pressure builds until it let’s go…

(He slides fingers of one hand across the other.)

…and, when it does, it will let go with the force to move billions of tons of rock about 12 meters at once.

We call the result of this a megathrust earthquake, the only type that will cause an earthquake with a very large magnitude. We know a magnitude 9 quake happened in 1700 off the coast of Vancouver. We also know this is a recurring thing in this area and the last 6 have happened 300 to 600 years apart.

(Spot fades to black. The lights rise on the set. Hugh is sitting at the table. There is a notebook, pencil and disposable coffee cup on the table. He takes a drink of coffee and winces, looks to the audience and sighs.)

Knowing that it will eventually happen is not the same as accepting it when it does. It’s been three days… and I haven’t slept.

(Hugh starts writing in his notebook and then grimaces at his notes. He checks his coffee, and goes to the coffee pot to get another. He returns to the table, takes and sip and grimaces. He returns to his notes. Enter Salome, upstage right.)