News / Vancouver

Earthquake detection technology can give Vancouver 90 second warning

Sensors on the ocean floor near Vancouver Island can sense an earthquake before the shaking starts

Students take part in an earthquake drill at Hollyburn Elementary School in West Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday January 26, 2011.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Students take part in an earthquake drill at Hollyburn Elementary School in West Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday January 26, 2011.

B.C. residents are bracing for the annual Shakeout earthquake drill happening on Oct. 20 and a new network of seismic sensors on the ocean floor will give people enough warning time to drop, duck and cover when the ‘Big One’ hits, says one company.

Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) installed two seismic sensors on the ocean floor off the west coast of Vancouver Island this summer and plans to install six more on the island this winter to create an early warning system for earthquakes.

The University of Victoria initiative could give Metro Vancouver residents as much as a 90 seconds warning when a mega-earthquake happens, said ONC president and CEO Kate Moran.

“The alert can slow down trains, bring elevators down to the bottom of the building, stop surgeries, power down computer systems, provide kids in schools enough time to get to under a desk.”

The sensors detect the primary wave of energy that comes from earthquakes. The primary wave does not cause any shaking – the secondary wave does and that one usually comes 30 to 90 seconds behind the first one, said Moran.

Crews install an earthquake sensor called an Titan accelerometer, on the ocean floor in June 2016.

Ocean Networks Canada/Contributed

Crews install an earthquake sensor called an Titan accelerometer, on the ocean floor in June 2016.

But it will be a few years before the network is complete with a sensor every 20 kilometres on Vancouver Island, she said. That kind of density on the west coast will provide enough information to allow scientists to determine the direction of the earthquake, said Moran.

“We want to get them as close to the [Cascadian] subduction fault as possible.”

The ONC received $5 million in provincial funding from Emergency Management BC to install the early warning system.

A major earthquake along the Cascadian fault is predicted to happen some time in the next 50 years but earthquakes can also happen along smaller fault lines closer to large urban centres like Vancouver, said engineer Kent Johansen.

 The UBC engineer says those earthquakes, even small ones, can be just as destructive because of their proximity to people.

“There are faults everywhere…all the way in Squamish, near Gibson. They’re everywhere.”

Similar earthquake sensors are already in about 60 Catholic schools throughout B.C. but Johansen wants more schools to invest in them.  

“Its just a matter of upscaling.”

This is one of several seismic sensors Ocean Networks Canada is installing on the ocean floor off B.C.'s coast.

Ocean Networks Canada/Contributed

This is one of several seismic sensors Ocean Networks Canada is installing on the ocean floor off B.C.'s coast.

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