In Depth

The race to get an earthquake early warning system in B.C.

Collaboration between research, private and government sectors means an earthquake early warning system could be just around the corner for B.C.

When the next earthquake hits — will we get a heads-up?

When the next quake hits -- will we get a warning? 5:48

Whether it's the big one under the Pacific Ocean, or a smaller one closer to home, earthquakes are inevitable on the West Coast. Inevitable — but unpredictable.

Now imagine you had a few seconds, or even a minute of warning time before the ground started shaking? Enough time to drop, cover and hold-on; manoeuvres that have been proven to save lives.

It's a race against a ticking time bomb — to get an earthquake early warning system in place before the next big one strikes.

And ever since the magnitude 4.8 earthquake that struck near Victoria, December 29, shaking a reminder into much of the South Coast, the pace has picked up.

How do early warnings work?

An early warning system is based on the fact earthquakes send out seismic waves in all directions. These waves travel at different speeds and they don't all shake the ground in a damaging way.

The fastest waves, called primary or p-waves, can't even be felt — but they can be picked up by sensors.

The secondary waves, called shear or s-waves, are the ones that cause the damage, shaking the ground back and forth as they travel through the earth.

Sensitive instruments can detect the first waves and trigger a network of warnings if it is indicating a large earthquake has just struck.

The farther away you are from the epicentre, the sooner the warning. 

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

Believe it or not, the South Coast has a number of earthquake early warning systems already in place right now.

Research groups, as well as commercial companies, have been developing cutting edge technology over the past few years that will detect early earthquake waves. 

So what's out there already, and why aren't you connected?

UBC's early warning network

UBC has been making headlines for their collaboration with schools across the South Coast. The university has a network of sensors and alarms in 60 schools — part of a pilot project with fund raising from the Catholic school board.

Accelerometers buried under the ground at some of the schools will detect the p-waves and trigger the alarms in all the schools connected to the network.

The alarm will sound over the school's PA system and the students have been trained to drop, cover and hold on — before the shaking even begins.

The designer of the accelerometers is Civil Engineering Research Associate Dr. Kent Johansen. His family had a 13-second warning when the December 29 earthquake struck — the first real test of the equipment.

Dr. Kent Johansen is a UBC civil engineering research associate and the designer behind the earthquake early warning network that has been installed in some schools across the South Coast. (CBC )

"I expect to see a little spike and I see a big spike! And I get out of the door, and of course I want to see the data because finally my system is doing something!"

"But I hear my wife shouting 'ìs that you, are you doing something?' 'Nope that's not me. That's an earthquake'" he said about the night the earthquake struck.

Connect to UBC's network from your home

Now Johansen is working on a home alarm that the public can use to connect to the early warning network via the internet.

The project, launched on Kickstarter,  is a "not for profit" community project, aiming to provide Earthquake Early Warning at a reasonable cost. 

Johansen also hopes that the simple, open-source design will encourage experimenting with the device — connecting it to apps as well as existing home systems like gas shutdowns.

He thinks this 'grassroots' approach to connecting people to an existing network of sensors might be the fastest way to get everyone an early warning.

Johansen runs a demonstration of the waves that the network of accelerometers detected during the December 29, 2015 earthquake that struck 20 km north of Victoria. (CBC)

The only downside to the home system is that it does require the internet to operate. In the rare cases that internet happens to be down before an earthquake happens, or there are network back-up issues, the alarm might not work.

But Johansen acknowledges this and says the network approach is "the only way it can be done without liability. We have something that is a lot better than nothing."

"We're not interested in earning money. We are interested in saving lives and that's the objective."

Johansen also hopes that this system can be implemented in Eastern Canada where moderate sized earthquakes can also happen.

And eventually — to countries that don't have big budgets for this kind of warning network but have very vulnerable infrastructure, like Nepal.

So Kent is part of one group interested in earthquake early warning systems — the research sector — where innovation meets trying to do things under a budget. 

But UBC isn't the only group that has a working earthquake early warning system in place. When it comes to hardware — the commercial sector is king.

Johansen has developed a Kickstarter page to fund an open source, earthquake early warning device kit for the home, using UBC's existing network. (CBC )

ShakeAlarm's early warning units

ShakeAlarm® is an on-site earthquake early warning system developed by a Vancouver based, family run company — Weir-Jones Group. And they already have some big clients.

The ShakeAlarm® technology is different than what UBC is using because they install stand-alone units — rather than a network of sensors. 

Andrew Weir-Jones is the Operations Manager for the company and he says that they decided to basically go off the grid.

All the units make the decisions themselves, they do not rely on a network or a power source. So there is minimal concern for network traffic or problems with the internet.

Andrew Weir-Jones is the operations manager for the Vancouver-based Weir-Jones group that created the earthquake early warning system — ShakeAlarm®. (CBC)

Up until this year, the price tag prohibited individuals from buying the system for their home. The cost has now come down to $9,500 for a unit.

The company will install it into the bottom of your house and it will feed a signal into your app. If someone wants to tie the unit into a control system in their home — like a gas shut-off valve, then they have to buy the whole system.

But if people just want the service on an app, that 30 users can connect to, the cost is $85 a month. 

The ShakeAlarm® home system is available for purchase as a single unit connected to your home, or as an app with a monthly fee. (CBC )

The real strength may lie in these stand alone units. Reliable and robust may be the way to go for city infrastructure like hospitals and office buildings.

In fact, a government contract back in 2009 put a ShakeAlarm® in the Massey Tunnel — a place where thousands of cars pass ever day. That's the connector between the U.S. and one of the Lower Mainland's major arteries.

In a large earthquake where a tunnel collapse is a concern, the stand-alone unit will trigger an alarm to get the cars out of the tunnel, and put gates down to stop more cars from entering — all before the damaging waves arrive.

B.C. Transportation Minister Clare Trevena announced Monday morning that the government won’t make a decision on how it will upgrade or replace the 59-year-old Massey Tunnel until the fall of 2020. (CBC )

Weir-Jones says that it's up to the province to decide what they want to do moving forward but he estimates he could put a province-wide system in place for less than $5 million. 

And he says there is interest from across the border in their system and technology.

So with at least two options already in place ready to be expanded upon — where does the government stand when it comes to investing in earthquake early warning technology?

Government funding

On February 29, the B.C. government announced a huge investment in the technology — $5 million to Ocean Networks Canada. This is big news for the scientific community and big news for B.C.

Dr. Kate Moran, president and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada and Naomi Yamamoto, B.C.'s minister of emergency preparedness during the funding announcement on February 29, 2016. (CBC)

 Ocean Networks Canada is a research group out of the University of Victoria, world-renowned for its underwater technology off the coast of Vancouver Island. They will use the money to install eight sensors designed to detect these early p-waves.

Three of the new sensors will be placed right on the subduction zone — where one day the big one will happen. For an earthquake early warning system, that means extra warning time.

The closer a sensor is located to the epicentre of an earthquake — the more lead time a warning can give.

Ocean Networks Canada will be adding earthquake sensors to the network of other instruments they currently have on the ocean floor. (Ocean Networks Canada)

But part of the funding will also go towards collaborating — and that will be key. Ocean Networks Canada doesn't have a network of sensors in place across the Lower Mainland — where smaller, but shallow and potentially damaging earthquakes can happen closer to major population centres.

These are called crustal earthquakes and that's what we got on December 29. 

Collaboration is key 

The Juan de Fuca plate is subducting under the North America plate. The 'big one' will happen somewhere along this boundary, out in the Pacific Ocean. Earthquakes on the North American plate are more common and are smaller in magnitude and generally shallower than a megathrust earthquake but can be damaging due to their proximity. (CBC)

So between UBC's network, ShakeAlarm sensors, Natural Resources Canada's existing seismograms and any other industry that has a stand alone sensor — all of the ingredients exist for a comprehensive, public earthquake early-warning system. 

And it's a two-way information share. UBC and ShakeAlarm will also get the data from Ocean Networks Canada.

Kate Moran, the president and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada says they will be "working with our partners to density the network.

The goal is to have a sensor every 20 kms and we'll see how far we can get with the funds we have".

She says that she came into working on earthquake early warning systems three years ago, and there were already players at the table. Moran says the expertise in B.C. is world class.

And that's why the U.S. wants in on the collaboration. Especially since earthquakes know no borders.

"With the fact that we have so many great people here, we feel like we might even be able to have it in place first. Fingers crossed." says Moran.

Yup. Canada might have a robust early earthquake warning system before the U.S. 

So we've got the universities, the private companies and the government agencies all wanting ultimately the same goal. And now the government has assigned someone to be in charge of that alliance.

One thing's for sure — it's happening fast with some of the world's brightest innovators. Moran couldn't give an exact timeline on the whole project but says it could be in place within a few years. 

Only time will tell if that's faster than the next earthquake. 

Education is just as important 

All sides couldn't stress enough the importance of earthquake education. Everyone in the province needs to be more knowledgeable.

Having extra seconds won't mean as much if you don't know what's going on, you don't know what to do, you don't have an earthquake plan or kit in place. 

So many people didn't know what was happening on Dec 29 when the earthquake struck — they thought it was a truck; they stumbled out into hallways or froze in place or even worse — got under doorways.

Drop, cover and hold on is what saves lives. 

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

So along with talking to your family about what to do, get educated about the earthquake and tsunami risks where you live — earthquakes can happen almost right across the country.

And there are options out there if you don't want to wait for the public system.

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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