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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

B.C.’s public health restrictions on non-essential travel are reinforced by orders effective April 23, 2021 to stay within your own regional health authority except for essential travel such as work and medical appointmens. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 non-essential travel ban takes effect, $575 fines approved

Checks on highways, ferries between Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, Interior

White Rock council say closure of the city’s pier, promenade and parking lots are not under consideration at this time, but have approved other COVID-19 options for the waterfront including stepped-up RCMP patrols that are already part of detachment planning. (Aaron Hinks photo)
White Rock pier, promenade, parking lot closures off the table – for now

Council members warn decision subject to future provincial health orders

It remains to be seen how tourism dollars announced this week will help in White Rock. (Sterling Cunningham file photo)
White Rock officials question if tourism relief will come soon enough

For business, budget ‘feels more like a placeholder,’ says chamber head

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
South Surrey, White Rock MLAs call Tuesday’s provincial budget ‘disappointing’

MLAs Stephanie Cadieux and Trevor Halford say residents are getting less for more

Memorial for Travis Selje on 64th Avenue in Cloverdale, west of 176th Street. (Photo: Tom Zillich)
Epilepsy-defence driver found not guilty in crash that killed Surrey teen Travis Selje

Accused testified she has no recollection of the crash and believes she had an epileptic seizure that caused the collision

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

A plan flew over the Lower Mainland with a sign expressing some Canucks fans’ discontent with the team’s general manager. (Niqhil Velji - Twitter Screenshot)
#FireBenning movement gets off the ground in Metro Vancouver

Canucks fans raise enough money to fly banner over Metro Vancouver asking for team GM to be canned

The freed osprey keeps a wary eye on its rescuers after being deposited on its nest. (Photo credit: Greg Hiltz)
Hydro crew in Ashcroft gets osprey rescue call-out they won’t soon forget

Bird was tangled in baling wire hanging from a hydro pole, necessitating a tricky rescue

Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth speaks to media at the Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday February 5, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials to announce travel restrictions today to limit COVID-19 spread

Mike Farnworth is expected to give details of what the government views as essential travel

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

Richard Desautel with supporters outside the courthouse in Nelson, B.C., in 2016. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
UPDATED: Sinixt, First Nation bordering Canada-U.S., can claim Indigenous rights, top court rules

The decision essentially reverses a 1956 declaration the Sinixt were extinct

MLA Shirley Bond, right, answers questions during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on February 19, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Former B.C. gaming minister says she wasn’t told directly about dirty cash flowing to casinos

Shirley Bond said Thursday civil forfeiture, gang violence and gambling addiction were also major concerns in 2011

RCMP Constable Etsell speaks to tourists leaving the area at a police roadblock on Westside Road south of Fintry, B.C., Thursday, July 23, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Yvonne Berg
B.C. police say they take ‘exception’ to conducting roadblocks limiting travel

Asking the police to enforce roadblocks exposes officers to further risk and possible COVID-19 infections, says federation president Brian Sauve

As part of the province’s strategy to combat the opioid overdose crisis, take-home naloxone kits have been distributed throughout the province. (Courtesy of Gaëlle Nicolussi)
Vancouver Island could be at its worst point of overdose crises yet: medical health officer

Island Health issued overdose advisories for Victoria, various communities in the last two weeks

Most Read