British Columbia

B.C. announces first step in province-wide earthquake warning system

Imagine getting a 15, 30 or even 90 second warning that a damaging earthquake is about to shake the ground? A province-wide earthquake early warning system may soon be a reality for British Columbians.

CBC Vancouver's Fault Lines podcast gives province a push

The first waves sent out by an earthquake don't shake the ground — but they can trigger alarms. (CBC)

Earthquake technology saves lives.

Japan has it, the U.S is working on it, and now B.C. is beginning the process to get it in place — a province-wide earthquake early warning system. 

The province of B.C. has issued a formal request for expressions of interest on an earthquake early warning and seismic monitoring program.

It's the first step to gain a better understanding of what sensors and networks are already in place, and what groups are interested in — and have the capacity to implement — the program.

Currently, there are a number of different entities independently working on seismic sensors in the province but up until now it's been a race against a ticking clock.

There's a 33 per cent chance a damaging earthquake will occur in B.C. in the next 50 years, but there are no plans to put a cohesive warning system in place everyone can connect to. 

While there has been some government investment in researching the issue, this is a huge step in finally making a province-wide warning system a reality.

CBC 'Fault Lines' podcast gives province a push

On October 11th, CBC Vancouver launched an original podcast series: 'Fault Lines,' outlining two catastrophic earthquake scenarios for B.C. 

Although the province has been working on various actions to improve earthquake preparedness, CBC has learned our recent earthquake coverage has in part been an impetus for pushing a request for expression of interest forward.

The province's Minister of Emergency Preparedness, Naomi Yamamoto , spoke to the CBC after its release:

"Thanks to I think Johanna Wagstaffe and her podcast series, this is [a] conversation people are having now and certainly that awareness of not having proper plans in place was something that the premier also felt, that's my new job. I'm really enjoying it but there's a lot to do now".

This is incredibly exciting news for the scientists, emergency planners and advocates of earthquake early warning systems — but what does this actually mean for the province?

Earthquake early warning system

When an earthquake strikes, it sends out a series of seismic waves that travel at different speeds. The fastest waves don't actually shake the ground in a damaging way — in fact, we can't even feel them.

But sensitive instruments can. And the lag between those first waves and the more damaging waves that come later is enough time to get a warning out. The farther away you are from the epicentre, the greater the warning time.

Depending on the various earthquakes that could strike the West Coast, that warning time could be anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. 

Though it may not sound like much, it's enough time to get under a desk or a table, measures that have proven to be life-saving. 

In its mission statement, the province says it's looking for expertise in providing a seismic monitoring system that could detect these early waves, as well as enhance research of B.C.'s seismic hazards. 

But on top of that the province will need an earthquake early warning system that can communicate those critical seconds of warning time to citizens and businesses. The EEW system will ideally send alerts to the public through mobile and SMS devices, Internet, television and radio but the system will also automatically trigger protective measures such as:

  • close bridges and tunnels
  • stop trains
  • shut off gas valves
  • open fire department garage doors
  • shut down laser scalpels

Wondering why we don't already have a complete system in place?

Grade 8 students at the Notre Dame Regional Secondary school practice how to react to an earthquake early warning alarm. (CBC )

Current players

There are already a number of different organizations in the province that have been working towards developing these monitoring systems.

In fact, there are seismic networks in place that range from the public sensors that detect our earthquakes to ocean-based sensors from Ocean Networks Canada, to the University of British Columbia's school program to private organizations that are working on both sensors as well as automated shut-down services.

Collaboration between these different groups will be key to moving forward since the technology already exists and some networks are already in place. The province will be looking for groups that fit a number of objectives ranging from financial sustainability to transparency and in the end that might mean a number of groups working together to meet all the needs of the province.

Next steps

The deadline for file an expression of interest is Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. After that the government will move forward with a 'request for proposals' before ultimately awarding a contract to a group or a combination of groups. 

Imagine getting a 15, 30 or even 90 second warning that a damaging earthquake is about to shake the ground? A province-wide earthquake early warning system may finally become a reality.

About the Author

Johanna Wagstaffe

Senior Meteorologist

Johanna Wagstaffe is a senior meteorologist for CBC, covering weather and science stories, with a background in seismology and earth science. Her weekly segment, Science Smart, answers viewers' science-related questions.

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