Quake early warning systems slowly taking shape

Seafloor sensors being installed, land-based network already activated at some schools

A Titan accelerometer is lowered to the sea floor in Barkley Canyon off Tofino to form the first node in a network of earthquake early warning sensors.

A Titan accelerometer is lowered to the sea floor in Barkley Canyon off Tofino to form the first node in a network of earthquake early warning sensors.



An undersea network of seismic sensors is slowly starting to take shape off the B.C. coast to provide early warning for Lower Mainland residents and authorities just before an earthquake strikes.

The first sensor was deployed at a depth of 850 metres in Barkley Canyon off Tofino in June by Oceans Network Canada, a non-profit company founded by the University of Victoria that got $5 million from the B.C. government to develop the network.

It’s a three-year project that aims to have a series of sea- and land-based sensors in place by March of 2019, followed by software systems to analyze and determine what type of customized warning the end user should get, depending on their location.

“Hopefully in three to five years or so we’ll be able to give you a warning to tell you to get under the table or take some safety measures before the shaking starts, which to us is the holy grail of public safety to be able to protect people from injuries and potentially save lives,” said Teron Moore, a business analyst at Ocean Networks Canada.

Advance warning is possible because the initial energy wave from an earthquake that doesn’t cause damage travels faster and can be detected well ahead of the wave of ground-shaking energy.

How much warning is possible depends on how far away a quake’s epicentre is and how close the nearest sensor is positioned to detect it and transmit the alert.

Ocean Networks Canada anticipates 60 to 90 seconds of warning can be given to populated areas of southwestern B.C. ahead of a major earthquake centred well off the coast.

It’s hoped that in future, much of the population will get enough warning from the emerging systems to take cover or even escape risky locations. Automated alerts could go out on radio and TV and through smartphone apps, Moore said.

Gas lines could be shut off and critical infrastructure could be protected. Traffic could be kept from tunnels and bridges. Elevators could automatically descend. And trains full of people or hazardous cargo could slow to a halt rather than derail at high speed.

While Ocean Networks Canada has tackled the seafloor sensors first, a group of UBC researchers has been deploying land-based sensors because they can be installed at a fraction of the cost.

They already have a working system up and running using a network of 30 ground-motion sensors that almost instantly triggers an alarm at 71 receiving sites – mainly private schools because the Catholic diocese stepped up early to support the project.

Data is available publicly on their website and alerts are also sent via a Twitter account (@EEW_BC)  and an Android phone app.

RELATED: Quake early warning system ‘worked like a charm’

UBC research engineer Kent Johansen says the Ocean Networks seafloor sensors will give more warning of an offshore quake than the nearest land-based sensors at Jordan River or Campbell River, or even additional sites being deployed at Tofino and Ahousaht.

But he said the land-based network is critical to warn of the shallower crustal earthquakes that can strike between Vancouver and Victoria and be severely damaging because of their proximity.

He pointed to a 1946 quake near Courtenay and another in 1976 off Salt Spring Island that both caused damage in Vancouver.

“They happen more often,” Johansen said, likening that scenario to the 6.3 magnitude earthquake in 2011 that severely damaged Christchurch, New Zealand.

“If we get hit by a just a six-pointer somewhere in the Strait of Georgia, it’s fatally damaging for Vancouver.”

UBC research engineer Kent Johansen. Brent Hayden photo

He said land systems could also be nearly as effective as seafloor ones in detecting a massive off-shore mega-quake.

Cascadia subduction zone quakes tend to start at one end of the fault off Oregon or Haida Gwaii and rip all the way to the other end, he said.

So the UBC team is contemplating extra distant sensor sites in Oregon and on B.C.’s north or central coast that might detect the start of such a quake earlier.

B.C. residents dropped under tables and desks Thursday morning during the Great B.C. Shake Out to drill on what to do in the event of an earthquake.

But to Johansen, such drills underscore the need for more advanced early warning systems to advise residents, beyond simply having public address systems broadcast a pre-recorded message to take cover and wait.

He imagines bored kids under school desks that get up and start wandering around a minute or two after an early warning alert arrives. “I just feel if it goes on for three minutes, school kids don’t have that kind of patience.”

Johansen aims to improve the system to provide real-time updates on whether the initial alert was a false alarm or the quake is still coming.

“It might say ‘Earthquake in progress off Tofino. Estimated time to shake 15 seconds. Please remain covered.’”

People who know it’s going to be minutes instead of seconds could decide to move somewhere safer, he said, adding he envisions a change someday to the current policy of just staying covered in place as warning systems evolve.

A crab watches as a Titan accelerometer is lowered into a special chamber in the sea floor in Barkley Canyon off Tofino to form the first node in a network of earthquake early warning sensors. Ocean Networks Canada photo.

Just Posted

Missing Abbotsford man Adam Hobbs was found deceased on Thursday evening (June 17).
Missing Abbotsford man Adam Hobbs found deceased

Hobbs was reported missing Monday after leaving his job site in Langley

A tenant walks in front of her home on Boundary Road on Friday, June 18, 2021 after it was destroyed by fire the night before in Chilliwack. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Chilliwack family homeless after fire rips through house on Abbotsford border

Turtle rescued, no one seriously hurt following Boundary Road fire in Chilliwack

Wild rabbits are all over Chilliwack, but people often think they’re someone’s lost pet and try to ‘save’ them. But the owner of Chilliwack’s Reptile Room says good intentions can have bad consequences for wild animals. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Owner of Chilliwack’s Reptile Room asks people to leave wild animals in the wild

Amber Quiring says people who think they’re helping are actually doing more harm than good

The Agassiz-Harrison Museum celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21 with special information about The Stó:lō Nation, culture, language and more. (Graphic/Agassiz-Harrison Museum)
Agassiz-Harrison Museum to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day

June 21 will feature info about local First Nations culture, language and more

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

A vial of AstraZeneca vaccine is seen at a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, April 22, 2021. The website for a Broadway theatre showing "Springsteen on Broadway" said it would only allow guests "fully vaccinated with an FDA-approved vaccine" — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
No Springsteen for you: AstraZeneca not good enough to qualify for Broadway ticket

Victoria area mayor among those unable to attend New York entertainment due to COVID-19 restriction

Audrey Inouye (right) with her two sons Kiyoshi McMillan (left) and Kaito McMillian drop off her milk to hospital volunteer Sylvia Hendel at a human milk depot on October 11, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Fraser Health appeals for breast milk after unexplained drop in donations

Give your breast milk and save newborn lives, the health authority is encouraging mothers

The BC Ferries’ website is down for the second time in one week from what they say is likely an overwhelming increase in web traffic. (Black Press Media file photo)
Surging web traffic crashes BC Ferries’ site again

Website down for second time this week

John Furlong told the Vancouver Board of Trade on Feb. 20, 2020 that he thinks the city could and should bid for the 2030 Winter Games. (CP photo)
PODCAST: John Furlong lays out a ‘provincial’ B.C. plan to host the 2030 Winter Olympics

Podcast: Chat includes potential role for Vancouver Island communities

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The pilot of this single-engine propeller plane was unhurt after crash-landing in a Como Road orchard Friday, June 18. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Plane crash lands into Grand Forks orchard, pilot injured

RCMP have secured the crash site, pending investigation by Transport Canada

BC Ferries’ newest Island Class vessel is experiencing an issue with one of its thrusters off the Algerian coast. Photo courtesy patbaywebcam.com.
BC Ferries newest vessel having mechanical issues in Mediterranean

Island 4 will be repaired in Spain before crossing Atlantic

Most Read