Scientists hope to speed up tsunami warnings

To make sure residents of Canada's West Coast get as much warning as possible if a giant wave is ever triggered, emergency officials are planning tests of an early warning system.
The tsunami that hit residences after a powerful earthquake in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, Japan, on March 11, 2011, put a warning system in British Columbia to the test. (Kyodo News/Associated Press)

Scientists warned this week that the 8.6-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast Indonesia on April 11 has put more pressure on the fault that caused the devastating 2004 earthquake and tsunami.

To make sure Canada's West Coast residents get as much notice as possible if a giant wave does get triggered, emergency officials are planning tests of an early warning system on June 5 and 6 this year. The exercise, called "Evergreen" will involve emergency services in British Columbia, as well as Washington State and Oregon.

The warning system being tested is part of the plan Emergency Management British Columbia (EMBC) has developed in recent years after several major seismic events in the Pacific Ocean.

The goal is to give coastal residents as much warning of an approaching tsunami as possible, in the hopes of avoiding a disaster the likes of Indonesia.

EMBC seismic specialist Teron Moore says the 2004 tsunami taught the emergency management team a number of things, like how to interpret a seismic event and the science behind how big they can be.

"Obviously the 2004 event was enormous and devastating," Moore said, "so tsunami modellers and emergency managers can learn from that information and further strengthen what messages need to go out [to the public] and when."

Early warning system

According to Moore, the underlying infrastructure for dealing with such a disaster has remained basically unchanged since 2004. The updates that have taken place have been more of a "honing the system, rather than a revamp."

The system depends on advisories put out by the West Coast and Alaska warning centre. When the centre detects a seismic event that could spawn a tsunami, it immediately notifies EMBC, which in turn enacts the Provincial Emergency Notification System (PENS).

Once a PENS message is posted, the EMBC system starts sending out automatic phone calls and emails, as well as faxes to local government, media, hospitals, the RCMP and other emergency management organizations along the areas of coastline that could be affected.

The system was put to the test last year after Japan suffered an 8.9-magnitude earthquake that sparked a tsunami advisory for coastal regions of B.C.

"One of the things we learned in Japan was that social media can be a good tool for delivering messages," Moore said. 

After the Japan disaster, EMBC started its own dedicated social media team, which is responsible for the group's Twitter account.

The account has more than 4,500 followers and allows for quick warning messages of the risks faced by British Columbians.

Moore says EMBC still faces challenges in the sense of tailoring messages for specific areas.

Aiming for a uniform message

"If we're sending a message to someone out in Vancouver, it might not be the same message were sending to someone in Tofino," Moore said, "but we try to keep things uniform. Obviously standard operating practices are important, as you don’t want people to make a whole lot of decisions [in the heat of an emergency]."

While the system is not used to issue tsunami warnings very often, Moore says, the team does use it regularly to post things such as forest fire information, snow pillow heights and road closures.

"That’s important as far as exercising systems for large catastrophic type events."

EMBC also takes part in the Pacific Northwest emergency management arrangement, which is an agreement with provinces, territories, as well as Yukon, Alaska, Washington State, Idaho and Oregon.

"The basic idea is we share emergency resources," Moore said.

"So if an earthquake is underneath Vancouver or somewhere in British Columbia and we needed resources, we could call on our neighbouring states and provinces."