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Early Earthquake Warning system won’t warn against localized tsunamis

Localized warning against tsunamis a complex challenge
Tahsis director Martin Davis is concerned about local tsunamis. Photo by Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror

Canada’s new Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) program will provide lifesaving seconds in earthquake-prone areas, but can’t warn against localized tsunamis.

At its Feb. 22 meeting, the Strathcona Regional District board was presented with an overview of an upcoming system of sensors that will alert people up to a few minutes before an earthquake is felt, giving them time to make emergency preparations to take cover and increase their chances of survival. National Resource Canada seismologist and outreach officer for the Earthquake Early Warning program Alison Bird gave the presentation to the board.

“The Earthquake Early Warning network is being established in areas of high risk in Canada,” Bird said. “This is where you have both high hazard for earthquakes, but also there’s infrastructure and people that are exposed to that hazard.

“When ours goes online in 2024 it will be the largest earthquake early warning system in the world,” she said.

There are limitations to the system. Tahsis director Martin Davis asked Bird about how the system could predict tsunamis in the Tahsis inlet, which is particularly susceptible to large fluctuations in water levels. Bird said that the system she presented was strictly for earthquakes, but seismic data is shared with the National Tsunami Warning Centre, but that even that data was more for broad areas, rather than the localized ones Davis was wondering about.

“In 1998 in the Nomash river which is upstream from Zeballos, a section of the mountains spontaneously fell down and (the wave) went to the bottom of the valley, up the other side of the valley, (and) two kilometers down the valley. It was absolutely catastrophic. Fortunately nobody lives there,” he said. “We have a mountain with a similar instability here. So we have no way of having a warning for that. If it did fall it would fall straight into the inlet.”

Bird said that such a system does not yet exist, and would be complicated to implement.

“The earthquake is your warning,” she said. “If you feel the strong shaking where it lasts more than a minute or it’s difficult to stand that is your warning that there could be a tsunami.”

Over 5,000 earthquakes per year happen in Canada, most of which are on the B.C. coast. Roughly 20 per cent also occur in Ontario and Quebec. The system, which includes sensors, high-speed data-processing and integration with the United States, will send text message alerts using the existing emergency alert system. However, people should not expect messages for each of the 5,000 annual earthquakes.

“We will only be alerting for potentially harmful earthquakes,” Bird said. “just the ones that could potentially cause damage and injury.”

The system will also alert infrastructure operators, giving them the chance to quickly enact emergency protocols. This could be something like opening fire hall and ambulance barn doors, diverting aircraft from landing, stopping trains or preventing drivers from entering bridges or tunnels.

“The system will only be effective if people and systems respond appropriately,” Bird said. “There’s a huge educational campaign in relation to this system.”

In 2022, a magnitude 7.4 earthquake struck in the Fukushima Prefecture of Japan (not to be mistaken for the 2011 earthquake in the same area). Bird said that their EEW system, which was activated 9.6 seconds after the initial waves were detected, stopped trains from carrying on to damaged tracks.

“It made a huge in impact in terms of reducing the negative effects of the earthquake,” she said. “These small things that can be done within a few seconds greatly reduce the impact of an earthquake.”

Bird and her team have run simulations based on real-world events on Vancouver Island. In a simulation based on the magnitude 7.3 earthquake that took place in 1946 near Cumberland, places like Vancouver and Victoria would get up to 40 seconds of warning.

The EEW system is expected to be operational in 2024.

RELATED: B.C. to install earthquake warning sensors to give life-saving notice

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