Ocean Networks Canada recently installed early earthquake warning technology to help monitor earthquake activity off the coast of Vancouver Island. The first two sensors were installed roughly 200 kilometres west of Port Alberni.

New system could help save lives in an earthquake

Teron Moore is a firm believer that a few seconds can mean the difference between life and death in the event of a massive earthquake.

Teron Moore is a firm believer that a few seconds can mean the difference between life and death in the event of a massive earthquake.

That’s why Moore, a business analyst with Ocean Networks Canada at the University of Victoria, and a team have helped establish one of the province’s first earthquake early warning systems off the coast of Vancouver Island.

The system, funded by Emergency Management B.C., consists of a network of sensors installed underwater at the bottom of the ocean and on land that monitor earthquake activity on the Cascadia subduction zone, a convergent plate boundary that stretches from northern Vancouver Island to northern California.

The sensors measure P waves, the first seismic wave that radiates from earthquakes when it begins to rupture. The P wave is then followed by the S wave, which results in shaking.

If an earthquake were to occur, the sensors deliver information to people onshore about where it’s happening, the size, and time — a few seconds before the actual shaking begins.

For example, Moore said the sensors could detect an 8.0-magnitude earthquake at 11:50 a.m., occurring 150 kilometres off the coast of British Columbia. Based on that information researchers can predict shaking intensities in Tofino, for example, and relay that information to residents, who would have anywhere from 40 to 90 seconds before shaking started to take action.

“That same earthquake can be analyzed by someone in Victoria and it might say ‘you have 50 seconds before moderate shaking hits your location’ and someone in Vancouver, depending on how big that earthquake is, could say you have two minutes of warning for a light shaking event,” he said.

The early warning technology could also give enough time to stop bridge and tunnel traffic, bring elevators to the ground floor, shut off gas lines, open bay doors at fire and ambulance halls, allow surgeons to stop delicate procedures and allow people to stop, cover and hold on before shaking begins.

According to Moore, similar systems have been installed in Mexico City and other countries. In Japan, the system was effective during the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Tohoku in 2011.

There were 27 trains travelling during the earthquake, all of which were able to slow down to a safe speed to ensure it didn’t derail when the shaking began.

“The Japan earthquake was a huge devastating loss, not just from the earthquake, but from the tsunami that followed and the Fukushima reactors,” Moore said.

“The earthquake early warning saved lives and it prevented damage from being even more damaging . . . Even though it’s only a short amount of time of warning — even it if saves one life, it’s worth it.”

The system is still relatively new to B.C., with one system installed under the Massey Tunnel in Vancouver in 2007. UVic researchers recently installed two sensors in the north east pacific, one of which is roughly 200 kilometres west of Port Alberni, and when complete, the system will have eight to 10 offshore sensors, along with sensors on the other side of the subduction zone.

Since installation, the sensors have detected a number of small earthquakes offshore, which helps scientists understand the type of activity that is happening in the region.

Moore noted over the past few years, science has helped people better understand the risks of living in an earthquake country, leading to greater awareness, preparedness and what do to in the event of an earthquake.

Last week was the Great B.C. Shakeout, in which more than 800,000 people participated in the event, more than 128,000 of whom were from Greater Victoria, which teaches people to drop, cover and hold in the event of an earthquake.