Ask pretty much any California resident what natural disaster they fear most and "earthquake" is almost certainly at the top of their list.

For Lori Dengler, Ph.D., a professor of geology at Humboldt State University, earthquakes have been her life's work. More specifically, she develops early earthquake and tsunami detection systems, hoping to protect more of the state's citizens and cities.

"An earthquake is always unexpected," she says. But "the actions we take now and continue to take day in day out will make the difference in how that earthquake will impact us and how quickly we can get back to business, create a new normal, and move on with our futures."

Dr. Dengler, who was recently awarded the 2017 Frank Press Public Service Award from the Seismological Society of America for her contributions to the advancement of public safety, has been a researcher in seismology for more than three decades. ​

The most likely earthquake to cause damage and casualties in California in the next decade is one in the mid-magnitude 6 to low 7 range."​ – Dr. Lori Dengler, Humboldt State​

In addition to helping the public better prepare for earthquakes and tsunamis, she also conducts real-time analysis of earthquakes and their impact and is an expert in paleoseismology, the study of sediments and rocks for signs of ancient earthquakes.

Dengler is, too, the founder of the Humboldt Earthquake Education Center; founded in 1986, the center is the only one of its kind within the CSU. It acts as  a hub for student research and produces Shaky Ground, an academic magazine.

We spoke with Dengler, who joined the HSU campus nearly 40 years ago, about her research and what California residents can do to be better prepared for "The Big One."

 

Q: How does your research impact California and its residents?

Dr. Dengler: I would like to think that my work and research has two effects: It engages the public and decision makers in understanding the both the risks and benefits of living on an "active plate margin," [meaning part of the earth's crust that is on the edge of a continent, as California is] and helps to assuage fears by giving people some tools to take some control over events that at first glance may seem random and frightening.

 

Q: What specific risks or hazards does California face when it comes to earthquakes and tsunamis?

Dr. Dengler: It is important to distinguish risk from hazard. We use hazard to describe the likelihood of an event (i.e., an earthquake or tsunami occurring), and risk to combine hazard with the likely impact on people. Alaska has the greatest earthquake and tsunami hazard; more large earthquakes and tsunamis occur along the Alaska-Aleutian subduction zone than anywhere else in the United States. But Alaska doesn't have the greatest risk because there are so few population centers in the Aleutian Islands and along the southern Alaska coast. 

California has the greatest earthquake risk and Hawaii has the greatest tsunami risk of the U.S. states.  The north coast of California — and especially Del Norte County — has the greatest tsunami hazard in the state. But the north coast of California has a very low population compared to areas of the state to the south of us. 

Rather than comparing relative risk, I think a more useful approach is to say that all Californians live with the possibility of an earthquake occurring beneath their feet and any Californian that lives near the coast or visits the seashore may be confronted with a tsunami. 

 

Q: What do we need to know about "The Big One"?

Dr. Dengler: "The Big One" is relative. To the people in the Marina district and on the Nimitz Freeway [in the San Francisco Bay Area] in 1989, the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake was "The Big One." The most likely earthquake to cause damage and casualties in California in the next decade is one in the mid-magnitude 6 to low 7 range — not an 8 or a 9.  Why?  Because 6.5s to 7.2s are much more common and could strike any part of the state. 

 

Q: More people are moving to California's coastal areas. What advice would you offer coastal residents in particular?

Dr. Dengler: Knowledge is power; know your zone! By this, I mean know if you live, work or play in a tsunami zone. California has a great tool, Cal MyHazards; it will show you where faults, floods, wildland fires and tsunamis zones are. Get involved with your local preparedness organizations, for example the American Red Cross or Community Emergency Response Teams.  


​​​Dr. Dengler's Earthquake & Tsunami Preparedness Tips:

  • If you feel an earthquake, drop, cover and hold on to protect yourself. If you’re near the coast, the shaking is Nature’s natural warning sign that a tsunami may soon follow, so go inland or to higher ground immediately. Once in a safe area, stay there and don’t return to the coast until officials say it is safe to do so. The danger period for tsunamis can last hours or days.

  • Put pressure on public officials and decision makers to ensure planning is a priority. Preparedness planning is often a low priority for individuals, communities, counties and states, but waiting for the shaking to start is too late. 

  • Invest in technology, infrastructure and outreach. Japan, Mexico, Taiwan and Romania have Earthquake Early Warning systems​, but the U.S.  lags behind in both equipment and infrastructure. While new buildings meet stringent building codes, there are many older structures in the state that do not.