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October 27, 2022

Looking for a spooky natural hazards travel guide this Halloween? You’ve come to the right place!


Although many people visit the West Coast for its sparkling beaches, scenic hiking trails, and impressive landscapes, it also hosts some wicked wonders in the form of varied natural hazards.  

To help you feel prepared rather than scared this Halloween, here's a guide to seven natural hazards, complete with information on how the USGS, working with partner agencies, is providing science to help you stay safe. 


1. Volcanoes  

These diabolical dangers can hide right before our eyes. A seemingly beautiful slumbering mammoth shapeshifts into a dangerous uncontrollable monster, shaking the ground and spewing fire and ash.  

The good news: volcanoes typically take time to wake up. Scientists can detect the earliest signals of volcanic unrest to warn communities at-risk and provide time for officials to activate emergency response plans and mitigation measures that can save lives and protect property.  

Color photograph of scientist sampling lava
A geologist collects a molten lava sample from the Kamoamoa eruption. USGS photo taken by M. Patrick on March 6, 2011.


2. Earthquakes

What could be spookier than knowing that the ground we’re standing on could make a sudden movement at any moment?  

Earthquakes can rattle chandeliers and move furniture. However, they’re not controlled by supernatural forces. Rather, an earthquake is caused by a sudden slip on a fault. The tectonic plates are always slowly moving but can get stuck at their edges due to friction. When the stress on the edge overcomes the friction, an earthquake releases energy in waves that travel through the earth's crust and cause the shaking we feel. 

To help prepare for shaking, you can connect with the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System, which partners with phone applications and systems to send you an alert that an earthquake happened, and shaking is imminent. Regardless of whether you get an alert, the moment you start to feel the ground tremble, you can take a protective action like, Drop, Cover, and Hold On! to help protect yourself from nearby objects that could hit you. And who knows, when you’re under the table, holding on to a leg and covering your head, you just might see a long-legged spider weaving an elaborate web. 

Read more about earthquakes here

Headstone rotated during the 2011 Virginia earthquake
A headstone at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., that was rotated by ground shaking during the magnitude 5.8 earthquake near Mineral, Virginia, on August 23, 2011.


3. Tsunamis 

Advice: If you see a ghoul, run! But it takes more than speed alone to outrun one horror of the West Coast: the tsunami. Tsunami waves can arrive within minutes when created by a local source or within hours when created by a distant earthquake across the ocean. The best way to escape this crushing creature is to move to higher ground.  

Many U.S. coastal communities are threatened by tsunamis, and recent disasters elsewhere in the world have demonstrated how destructive these waves can be. The USGS tsunami and tsunami hazards research supports local and state emergency managers in their efforts to prepare communities and reduce the potential impacts of future tsunamis by studying how and where tsunamis could form, the frequency and size of past tsunamis, and how coastal communities may be vulnerable to tsunami hazards. The USGS studies recent, historic, and prehistoric tsunamis to better understand impacts, processes, and causes. 

Read more about tsunamis here

A home, severely damaged by the tsunami that hit Sumatra on December 26, 2004, sits atop debris.
A severely damaged home, or a portion of one, sits atop debris in Banda Aceh on the island of Sumatra. Damage was caused by a massive, highly destructive tsunami, triggered by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake just offshore of Sumatra, on December 26, 2004.


4. Wildfire

Imagine dark grey clouds of smoke atop neon flames, fanned by a dry, crackling wind. Although that scene seems lifted from a horror movie, it is, in fact, a reality that many people now face around the country, especially in the West. 

Extreme heat and longer-than-usual droughts are fueling more intense wildfires. Not only do wildfires affect people’s lives, homes, and livelihoods, they can also completely change ecosystems from vibrant fields filled with green shrubs and trees to a graveyard of scarred plant skeletons.  

USGS scientists are studying these ecosystem transformations from the sky and ground to better understand the cause, consequences, and benefits of wildfire to help prevent and manage larger, catastrophic events. 

Read more about wildland fire science here

Photo of a burning southern California landscape
Southern California wildfire.


5. Landslides

This tricky terror, one of the most common and devastating natural hazards in 
the Pacific Northwest, occurs in all 50 states and U.S. territories, causes $1-2 billion in damages, and results in an average of 25 fatalities each year. It goes by many names, including debris flow, earth flow, rock fall, mudflow, mudslide, slide, and slump, but no matter what you call them, landslides can haunt your Halloween.  

Expansion of urban and recreational developments into hillside areas leads to more people that are threatened by landslides each year. USGS scientists study these slippery phenomena to help communities stay safe. Landslides commonly occur in connection with other major natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, and floods, but there are other contributing factors including erosion by rivers, glaciers, or ocean waves.  

Read more about landslides here. 

Image: Oso, Washington Landslide
Oblique aerial photograph of the Oso, Washington landslide, showing the entire extent of the landslide source area and path.Location: State Route 530, Oso, Washington


6. Flooding

In an act worthy of the mystical and mighty Poseidon, atmospheric rivers can wreak havoc by releasing a tremendous amount of water. Although the Greek god of water hasn’t claimed responsibility for the extreme weather event and ensuing floods and landslides, he would likely be intrigued by how the long, narrow atmospheric rivers can strike the west coasts of most continents and landmasses.  

As climate change (a spooky phenomenon in its own right) causes more frequent and extreme weather events like severe storms, we’ll need to study the impacts of previous atmospheric rivers and use this information to inform flood-management strategies for the future. The USGS and its partners created “ARkStorm,” a California-wide storm disaster scenario that reveals the potential physical, social, and economic impacts from severe storms that could be followed by flooding and landslides.  

Read more about atmospheric rivers and ARkStorm here.  

Tinker Creek, heavily flooded after a storm.
Tinker Creek, above Glade Creek (USGS Monitoring location 0205551614), experienced severe flooding after a storm in June of 2020. USGS scientists captured this footage of the creek with water levels far exceeding their normal depths.


7. Hurricanes, Typhoons and Cyclones 

This Halloween don’t fear mad scientists creating monsters in a lab. Instead, trust the rad scientists of USGS to give you warning and advice on how to stay safe from some of nature’s most dangerous hazards. Although hurricanes and tropical storms pose the greatest weather threat to the Florida Keys and its coastal waters, the West Coast is susceptible to its relation: the tropical cyclone, which can rip up trees and homes, causing mass devastation for communities.  

The USGS provides comprehensive science and information that decision makers, emergency responders, resource managers, and communities can use to help them weather storms.  

Read more about hurricanes here.  

Satellite footage of Hurricane Ian approaching the South Carolina Coast.
Satellite footage showing Hurricane Ian just before landfall September 30. NOAA images. 


Video Transcript
The ARkStorm scenario led by the USGS and hundreds of scientists and experts from many disciplines details impacts of a scientifically plausible storm similar to the Great California Storm of 1862 in the modern day.  The ARkStorm Overview:
Video Transcript
This video captures the bizarre occurrences that can happen during a flood. A USGS employee witnesses such an event while taking a measurement at Oak Creek from a cable way.
On May 27, 2018, the Department of Interior Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Kīlauea response team was conducting mapping missions in the lower East Rift Zone to monitor lava flow advancement rates and direction toward Highway 132 and populated areas. 


Some additional haunting USGS photographs


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