New earthquake technology could have forewarned 2001 Nisqually shaker

Fifteen years after a 6.8 magnitude earthquake south of Seattle caused billions in damage, scientists say new technology that exists today might have provided a little advance warning.

Scientists say advance warning of even seconds can help save lives in an earthquake

A large van was crushed by earthquake debris in a Seattle parking lot following the Nisqually earthquake on Feb, 28, 2001. (Kevin Galvin/FEMA)

It's been 15 years, but Victoria's John Cassidy still clearly remembers the shaking he felt from a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Washington State.

"Yeah I was actually at home sick that day so I was at home and everything just really started rattling and shaking and it was ... the strongest shaking I'd ever experienced," said the Natural Resources Canada seismologist based in Victoria B.C..

On Feb. 28, 2001, the quake, called the Nisqually earthquake, centred near Olympia, Wash. about 150 km southeast of Victoria, was felt across southwestern B.C., from northern Vancouver Island to the Okanagan.

Natural Resources Canada seismologist John Cassidy says scientists are getting more precise at understanding where earthquakes have occurred in the past and where to expect them in the future. (NRCAN)

While there was only minor damage in Victoria and Vancouver, Cassidy says it caused $1 billion worth of damage in the Seattle area along with numerous injuries.

Cassidy along with his colleagues studying earthquakes with the federal government are marking the anniversary of the quake by reflecting on how far technology has come in the study of seismic events, including one that can forewarn violent shaking from an earthquake when it begins.

"So if you're far enough away from a large earthquake, there is the opportunity to have some warning time, in some cases five second, ten seconds, maybe a few minutes warning based on the travel time of the waves," said Cassidy.

While he concedes that doesn't sound like much, it could be enough time for someone to dive under a desk, move away from a window or even have automated systems open the doors to firehalls or warn surgeons to put down their scalpels.

Earthquake science still 'young'

Cassidy says earthquakes like Nisqually and a similar, less powerful one that occurred on Dec. 29, 2015 near Sidney B.C., but was also felt across the South Coast, create opportunities for scientists to learn from the new monitoring devices now in place.

"We have many more instruments on the ground now. We have more precise locations. We can actually map the ocean plate, where those deep earthquakes are occurring," he said. "So our understanding of how ground shaking varies with distance from an earthquake has moved forward."

Scientists also have new tools like global positioning systems, which show earth movements every hour of every day, along with the ability to image the sea floor to look for faults.

"There's a lot going on," said Cassidy adding that earthquake science remains "very young," as data is still missing from earthquakes which occurred thousands of years ago and there are faults which haven't been discovered yet.

The Evergreen State College Academic Library following the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. (The Evergreen State College Academic Library/@TESClibrary)

Still, despite the doom and gloom of a big one coming to the Pacific Northwest, there is optimism that the science that now exists can be used to better protect people living here.

"All of this new information feeds into our building codes, into our bridge codes, our dam codes and this information is being used to protect us from future earthquakes," he said. "And one of the best ways to protect ourselves from future earthquakes is through the earthquake science, the earthquake engineering."

Cassidy also celebrated the awareness being done in schools and by cities to inform residents about what to do when the shaking starts,

"It will make a difference when the next earthquake hits this region, so if people know what to do before an earthquake, during and after an earthquake, that will save lives, and that will make a huge difference in minimizing those future impacts."


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