In light of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan last week, what chance is there that something like that could happen to New York City?
Steven Ward, a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, believes a huge tsunami will likely hit the Big Apple. The biggest question for Ward is when.
Ward and his co-author, Simon Day of University College London, released a paper in 2001 detailing the possibility of a tsunami hitting New York — and the entire eastern coast of the United States — at some point in the future. Unlike the Japanese tsunami, this one would be set off by an eruption of the Cumbre Vieja Volcano in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. When this happens, the volcano will "experience a catastrophic failure of its west flank, dropping 150 to 500 km³ of rock into the sea[.]"
"You remember Mt. St. Helens?" Ward said. "Well that was pretty exciting, and that was 5 km³, so this could be 100x larger. Put it in the water, and it'll be a big event when it happens."
Laura Kong, a marine geologist and director of the United Nations tsunami program in Honolulu, shed doubt on those predictions. In a 2004 New York Sun Article, Kong said most in the field were skeptical of Ward's findings.
While it is true that at some point the chunks will fall into the ocean - that is expected to be triggered by an earthquake in the next 10,000 years - the power of an ensuing tsunami has been overstated, Ms. Kong said.
"In what we have seen in the models that are much more sophisticated," she said, "the simple answer is the sizes of probable chunks that would slide from a volcano in the Canary Islands are too small to generate a large enough wave that would create a tsunami that would hit New York."
In 2009, scientists announced that, 2,300 years ago, a giant tsunami crashed over New York.
Geological experts said the wave "dumped sediment, shells and marine fossils across the region that date back to 300BC."
As for an earthquake, Won-Young Kim, who runs the seismographic network for the Northeast at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said the city is well overdue for a big one, though not nearly as large as the 8.9 quake that struck Japan.
Kim said the city is likely to experience a 5 magnitude quake every 100 years or so.
"It can happen anytime soon," Kim said. "We can expect it any minute, we just don't know when and where."
The Lamon-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University's Earth Institute notes that the largest quake ever recorded in the greater New York City area was a 5.2 in 1884.
if you want a horrible, possibly fantastical image of what a tsunami hitting New York would look like, check out this CGI-heavy video: