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Splash-testing survival tech: Locked in a tsunami escape pod in the middle of the ocean

The earth is shaking, the wave is approaching... how do you escape? We go inside the Survival Capsule that could help you outlast a tsunami.

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I'm strapped into a jump seat. My legs are squashed, my shoulders are cramped, and my only air supply is drifting in through a valve just above my left ear. In front of me, a watertight metal door is bolted shut. Outside, I can see the Seattle skyline bobbing up and down in between huge waves of water, all visible through a small, reinforced porthole. 

This story is part of Hacking the Apocalypse, CNET's documentary series on the tech saving us from the end of the world.

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

I've foolishly volunteered to head out onto Puget Sound, to test out the Survival Capsule -- a high-tech tsunami escape pod that protects civilians in case of a catastrophic emergency. Designed to aerospace standards and built from aircraft-grade aluminum, it's made to withstand tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes. In short, it promises the ultimate in disaster insurance, starting at a cool $15,000. 

Being locked inside a Survival Capsule is not my ideal way to spend a Thursday morning. I'm claustrophobic and prone to motion sickness, and frankly I don't trust the ocean. But if a catastrophic earthquake hits the Pacific Northwest and I'm left with 10 minutes to escape the giant tsunami that follows, a watertight escape pod might just be my best option for staying alive.

Hacking the Apocalypse is CNET's new documentary series digging into the science and technology that could save us from the end of the world. You can check out our episodes on PandemicNuclear WinterGlobal DroughtTsunamis, Cryonics and Escaping the Planet and see the full series on YouTube.

Engineered for disaster

A tsunami escape pod might sound like the frivolous invention of a tech billionaire or a Bond supervillain. But in reality, it's the brainchild of Julian Sharpe, a former aerospace engineer who dreamed up the idea during a beach vacation with his family. 

The Survival Capsule is reinforced with a tubular aluminum frame.

Julian Sharpe/Survival Capsule

"I was lying there at nighttime listening to the waves, and I was thinking, 'What happens if a tsunami comes in now?'" he says. 

"It's nighttime, none of the tsunami signs would be illuminated. The kids were younger in those days, so you probably had to carry them. So I had all this going through my mind, and I started thinking about making something to jump into, which would be the simplest solution."

Drawing on his years in the aerospace industry, Sharpe sat down to make some preliminary sketches, and the idea of the Survival Capsule was born. 

The Capsule is essentially a large, reinforced ball designed to protect passengers from the extreme forces of waves and the debris that comes with them. Don't expect the escape pod James Bond made famous in The Spy Who Loved Me -- it's utilitarian and no-nonsense, with an exposed, tubular aluminum frame on the inside and space only for the essentials for survival. 

The Capsule is lined with the same silver, ceramic insulation that was used to protect the Space Shuttle when it reentered Earth's atmosphere. It's just wide enough for two people to sit side by side (though you'd want to be very comfortable sharing personal space), with the remaining space behind and below the seats dedicated to storage for supplies and air tanks (just in case).

hta-survival-capsule-diagram

From its aluminum frame to its temperature-resistant ceramic lining to its Lexan windows, the Survival Capsule has been designed to survive a worst-case scenario.

Survival Capsule

On the outside, the bright orange Capsule is reinforced to withstand everything a natural disaster can bring. According to the Survival Capsule website, that includes "sharp object penetration, heat exposure, blunt object impact and rapid deceleration" -- basically, if you're cast upon the waves and you come crashing back to shore, the Capsule has you covered. 

When you look back at grainy video footage from the catastrophic tsunami that hit Sumatra in 2004, or the heartbreaking footage of the 2011 Japanese tsunami that led to the Fukushima meltdown, the idea of sheltering in place and trying to ride out a tsunami seems like madness. 

But tsunamis come with little warning, the waves are fast and they're incredibly destructive, meaning evacuation is often impossible. If a tsunami is coming, jumping in a survival pod might be the best way to stay alive.

'If it's long and strong, be gone'

"A typical wave on the beach might go 10 miles an hour," says tsunami expert Steven Ward. "A tsunami wave in the middle of the ocean goes 500 miles an hour -- the speed of a jet."

Ward is a research geophysicist at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He's spent his life studying natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, and simulating their impacts, pixel by pixel, on a computer screen

Subduction earthquakes are caused when one tectonic plate slides under another, displacing the plate above. 

Amy Kim/CNET

The earthquakes that cause tsunamis are known as subduction earthquakes or "megathrust earthquakes," where one part of the earth's crust slides under another, displacing everything above it. That's opposed to a "strike-slip" earthquake which is caused by two tectonic plates rubbing against each other (like the earthquakes you'll find in California, thanks to the San Andreas Fault). Subduction zones that cause megathrust earthquakes are found in places like Indonesia, off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and near Japan. When an earthquake hits an underwater subduction zone, it pushes the Earth's crust upward and the ocean above has to move, too. 

"Imagine a giant out in the ocean," says Ward. "[He] lifts the seafloor up and holds it there, and all the water slides in for 10 or 15 minutes. And the giant lets go and it all slides back out again." 

These earthquakes can cause massive devastation, and the tsunamis they can spawn come incredibly quickly. According to Ward, for people living in places like Japan or the Pacific Northwest, a tsunami can arrive in 10 minutes or less. 

"Those people are not going to get any official warning because it's too fast," he says. "But they also have what they call a 'self warning'. They say, 'If it's long and strong, be gone.' So if [the earth] starts shaking, the minute it stops you've got about 10 minutes to follow the signs and get uphill." 

That might sound like enough time to run to safety, but imagine the scenario. You've just experienced a magnitude 7 or 8 earthquake. You've survived your entire house shaking on its foundations and you're miraculously unhurt. But now you have to gather your loved ones and evacuate. What if it's the middle of the night? What if the streets outside are completely destroyed? 

According to Julian Sharpe, "horizontally or vertically evacuating" in those cases -- that is, running inland or climbing to a safe point out of the waves -- isn't always an option. And that's why he built the Survival Capsule. 

Meeting the waves head on

Back in Seattle, we've cruised out to the middle of Puget Sound and the weather is glorious -- I'm certainly not expecting to be washed away by a tsunami. 

This computer simulation, created by Steven Ward, shows the size of a tsunami (in meters) that could be caused by a Magnitude 9 earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone off of the northwest coast of North America.

Animation by Steven Ward

But roughly 150 miles west of where I am now, deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, two tectonic plates are at war. Here, the Juan de Fuca plate has been slowly, quietly grinding underneath the North America Plate for roughly 200 million years, storing up energy which periodically gets released in the form of earthquakes. This 620-mile long boundary line in the earth's crust (which also includes the Gorda and Explorer tectonic plates shoving their way into the mix) is known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone. And it's this area that's capable of producing magnitude 9 earthquakes -- on par with the highest magnitude earthquakes ever recorded. 

"Earthquakes happen in Cascadia every 300 years, plus or minus 100 years," Ward says. "And it's been 300 years since the last one."

That means I'm testing a tsunami escape pod in what's effectively earthquake ground zero, exactly when a massive earthquake is due to arrive. Just when I thought it was safe to get back in the water. 

With the Survival Capsule hanging from a crane on the boat and the maximum legal dose of Dramamine coursing through my veins, Julian Sharpe says he's found the perfect spot to do a test run: close enough to the ferry route to get knocked around, but far enough out that our boat can run doughnuts around the Capsule to generate waves. Sharpe and I have a different definition of "perfect."

As a precaution, we decide to send the empty pod out onto the water for a dry run before I get inside. Watching that orange ball get lowered into the choppy water, I quietly pray that the Capsule will somehow sink and we'll all get to go home for a nice cup of cocoa. But no such luck. 

Julian Sharpe and his team have tested the Survival Capsule before. They dropped it 200 feet off the Palouse Falls in Washington -- kind of like the scene in The Fugitive, if Harrison Ford was replaced with a giant orange sphere. The Capsule sustained a few scrapes and dings, but that's to be expected when you smash into rocks and crash-land into churning white water. 

In a real tsunami situation, you wouldn't be craning this Survival Capsule into the water. Sharpe says it's designed to sit on a back deck or in a backyard in tsunami prone areas -- somewhere that allows quick access in an emergency. 

Back on Puget Sound, the Capsule is brought back in and we realize the door wasn't properly bolted shut before the test run. Not missing a beat, Sharpe cuts the top off a gallon-sized plastic water bottle and happily sets to work bailing a foot or so of water out of the bottom of the Capsule. I turn quietly to our video shooter, John. He's attempted to arrange his features into a look of reassurance, but it's more the wide-eyed, panicked rictus of someone mentally Googling "how to notify next of kin after accidental escape pod drowning." 

hta-tsunami-pod-claire

This orange ball could be the only thing standing between me and certain disaster.

Andy Altman/CNET

With all the internal fortitude of someone thinking of a $500 nonrefundable boat deposit, I climb into the Survival Capsule. And... I feel surprisingly safe. The seat belt has me strapped in snug. Sharpe locks the door from the outside (the door can also be opened from the inside), and I see the bolts slide into place, making the pod watertight. And when the Capsule is craned out over the water, I feel cramped but still secure in the knowledge that I'm in a solid sphere of meticulously engineered tsunami protection. 

My pod is dropped into the water and that's when I see what this thing is really designed for. The boat has motored away and is making huge waves around me at full speed, leaving me bouncing and rocking wildly on the water. The porthole goes from being submerged in inky blackness to showing me the sky above; water comes in through the air valve near my ear, and I quickly pull the metal cover over it to seal it shut, while bracing my legs on the door in front of me. It's insane and, dare I say it, almost fun. 

As I roll around in the churning waves, I radio back to the boat telling them to go harder. This is nowhere near as terrifying as I expected, and I'm keen to push the Capsule further. I see the boat zoom past in the porthole, casting its wake over me and sending me careening around even more.  

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That's me, all alone inside an orange escape pod, in the middle of Puget Sound.

John Kim/CNET

But just as I'm starting to get used to the ride, it's over. The waters calm and the self-righting Survival Capsule starts to come back to equilibrium. I'm craned back onto the boat. The door is released and I step out into the bright sunshine. I survived. 

In truth, I survived a storm in a teacup, compared with the real deal. I still have no idea what it would be like to experience a tsunami -- the fear, the desperation, the mass of water that crushes everything in its path. Living in Australia in 2004, I still remember the news of the Boxing Day tsunami devastating the islands of Indonesia and the feeling of sheer hopelessness for the people who were swept away. 

Out on the Sound, I didn't face a wall of water or 20-foot-high waves. I didn't have to evacuate with only the clothes on my back or jump into the Capsule on my back deck, waiting for a wave to do its worst. And I wasn't sitting inside that ball desperately wondering what would be left of my home or whether my neighbors were still alive. 

But one day, when escape is a matter of life or death, it's nice to know there might be a way to save those who are most vulnerable. 

As we boat back to the jetty, I stare out at the ocean. Beneath us right now the Earth is shifting. Giant forces as old as the planet itself are quietly grinding away, with no care for the minuscule humans on the surface. When the next earthquake and tsunami come, nature will be as merciless as it has always been, and our attempts to fight it may ultimately be futile. But humans are nothing if not industrious. And we might just have engineered a solution to survive.