Province looks to build early earthquake warning system

Two years after the B.C. auditor found it unprepared for a catastrophic earthquake, Victoria is planning an early earthquake warning system.

Two years after the B.C. auditor found it unprepared for a catastrophic earthquake, the provincial government is looking to build an early earthquake warning system.

Last week, the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure put out a call for consultants who can help design a province-wide warning network that will not only alert people to damaging earthquakes, but also trigger safety shutdowns of things like gas lines, rail lines, even laser scalpels.

The request also anticipates building a new seismic monitoring network that will aid research and development.

Both systems are meant to be compatible with similar networks across the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which includes 1,100 km of the Juan de Fuca and North American tectonic plate boundary that stretches from Vancouver Island to northern California.

In 2014, the BC Auditor found that despite a previous audit that reached the same conclusion in 1997, Emergency Management BC (EMBC) was not funded enough to make catastrophic earthquake planning a priority.

“EMBC’s mandate is very broad, and day-to-day emergencies such as floods and fires consume the majority of staff time,” said the report.

“Many of EMBC’s deficiencies in its earthquake response capabilities were highlighted in their 2012 response to a potential tsunami in Haida Gwaii,” the auditor noted, referring to the 7.8 earthquake off the west coast of Moresby Island.

Among the problems found after the 2012 earthquake, the auditor said B.C.’s existing emergency notification system is too cumbersome and error-prone.

A better system would provide early warning of earthquakes by detecting the first and fastest seismic waves that go out from the epicentre.

While they usually don’t shake the ground, such waves can be detected by instruments, giving people an early warning that can vary from a few seconds to a tens of seconds, depending on the distance.

The B.C. government expects consultants to file expressions of interest by Dec. 20, with a full request for system proposals to follow sometime in the new year.