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The ‘Big One’ near Vancouver you may not know about

Many of us have heard of the so-called ‘megathrust risk’, but did you know about the ‘crustal earthquake’?

We all know about the ‘Big One’: the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that will hit the B.C. coast one day.

But did you know there are other earthquakes waiting to strike that could be even more damaging for Metro Vancouver?

The real ‘Big One’ — the one that keeps engineers awake at night — is actually a magnitude 7.0 crustal earthquake, with an epicentre very close to Victoria and Vancouver.

And there’s a one in five chance we could get hit in the next 50 years.

Daniel Stevens, Director of Emergency Management for the City of Vancouver, said we’d be looking at a bad scenario if a shallow earthquake were to happen near Vancouver.

“We would see damage to our bridges, damage to our roads, our telecommunications systems will be damaged. There may be fires that break out in some areas. And the biggest impact is going to be the buildings,” he said.

“It’s going to be quite a mess where people haven’t taken steps or in the buildings that haven’t been built [properly]. Some people will be trapped in the rubble of those buildings…or injured along the way.”

The ‘Big One’ will be big, but much further away

The megathrust earthquake does get all the headlines, for good reason. Right now, two tectonic plates have become locked in place off the coast of Vancouver Island.

As the oceanic Juan de Fuca plate tries to slide under the less dense North American plate we live on, it’s become stuck. And it’s been stuck now for three centuries, building up stress, ready to go at any moment.

When it does, the devastation to our infrastructure will be enormous. Coastal communities from Vancouver Island to California may become the victims of monster tsunamis that will be generated.

But the epicentre will be at least 300 kilometres off the coast of Vancouver — meaning the seismic waves will have to travel a long way to get to our big cities. Energy will be lost along the way.

The impact will certainly still be enormous for Vancouver, but it will be different, said Earthquake Canada seismologist Alison Bird.

“Those jiggling waves get filtered out by the earth and what you end up with is longer period waves. First Nations stories of the 17th century earthquake talk about people on the mainland area feeling motion sick,” she said.

“Our tall buildings will be especially tested due to the slow, back and forth motion that will seem to last forever.”

Shallower means closer

As bad as the megathrust sounds, an earthquake that happens just below the surface of the earth might actually be worse for many in British Columbia.

The major tectonic action happening just off the west coast of North America has resulted in the deformation of the North America plate that we live on. There are now dozens — if not hundreds — of cracks in the earth that are also waiting to give way.

If one of those small faults ruptures just 10 kilometres under the Strait of Georgia, Vancouver and Victoria may only experience 20 seconds of shaking, but it would be violent enough to knock people off their feet.

The seismic waves don’t have to travel very far, so the shaking will be much more intense for areas near the epicentre. The energy released is a thousand times weaker than a 9.0 magnitude, but would be so much closer to B.C.’s most populated cities: just 10 km down — instead of 300 km to the west, and then 30 km down.

This is the kind of earthquake that worries our engineers the most.

A third option

There’s a third type of earthquake that is possible for the South Coast of B.C. — deep earthquakes of magnitude 6.5 to magnitude 7.0 that also happen right under our mainland cities.

These quakes occur on that ‘subducting’ oceanic plate, but in the section that has already moved under the North American plate, usually at depths around 50- 60 kilometres.

While likely not as damaging, these can happen even more frequently than the other two. The Nisqually, Washington earthquake in 2001 that damaged Seattle’s airport was one of these earthquakes.

So what are the odds?

While we may never be able to predict exactly when and where an earthquake will hit, British Columbia is due. Bird said the odds are greater than you might think when you factor in all three earthquake types.

“I think people tend to focus on the big one. If you’re looking at the statistics there’s a 1 in 10 chance that it will happen within the next 50 years. I think of those as fairly high odds. If we had a lottery with that kind of probability you’d probably buy a ticket,” she said.

“[But] if you look at the crustal earthquakes in the Vancouver region [plus] any strong earthquake that could hit Vancouver, you’re looking at a one in five chance in the next 50 years. For Vancouver Island it’s about a one in three chance of a strong damaging earthquake.”

Bird knows the odds. But she chooses to live on Vancouver Island anyway, taking comfort in knowing she has prepared her family for a major earthquake.

“​This is where I want to live in Canada. I love the West Coast. As a seismologist I just don’t feel like I would be all that fulfilled if I was working from the Ottawa office. And I feel I can help people more from here.”


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Why the risk of the ‘Big One’ in B.C. is heightened every 14 months

1,000s of tremors — earthquake precursors in slow slip event — are expected on Vancouver Island.

Roughly every 14 months, for about a two week period, seismologist Alison Bird won’t park underground.

That’s because she knows the chances are higher of a big earthquake striking.

Almost like clockwork, thousands of tiny tremors rumble unfelt across the Pacific Northwest indicating a ‘slow-slip’ event is taking place.

Bird, an earthquake seismologist for the Geological Survey of Canada, says it’s something scientists discovered at the office in Victoria when they noticed an unusual pattern on seismograms.

“Every 14 months or so there’s a sudden reversal of movement [of Vancouver island] for a couple of weeks,” she said

“It’s buckling in that one direction but suddenly it settles a little bit … it could be a last straw scenario, [where] just that little bit of extra stress that’s going to cause that rupture to trigger … the megathrust earthquake.”

Stress is building

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a 1000 km fault that runs from Northern Vancouver Island to Northern California. The fault itself is a boundary between two tectonic plates: the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate is moving towards, and getting shoved under the North American plate that we live on.

A section of that boundary has become locked together — the plates are no longer sliding smoothly. So all that forward movement is being stored up inside the rocks, waiting for the day that the energy will be released as a catastrophic megathrust earthquake, colloquially known on the Pacific Northwest as the ‘Big One’.

But why is there a heightened concern that the ‘Big One’ will happen during a slow slip?

“What we think is happening is that whenever there’s that reversal, for those two weeks it’s loading extra stress onto the locked zone,” she said.

“So if that lock zone is close to critical, and you’re loading mild stress on to it … just that little bit of extra stress could cause that rupture to trigger.”

When’s the next slow slip?

The last time the signature showed up on seismograms around B.C. was the end of December 2015 to the beginning of January 2016.

That would mean the next slow slip event will happen sometime around February 2017.

But don’t wait until then — get an earthquake kit and plan in place right now. A medium-sized earthquake could happen at any time.

Meanwhile Bird does her part to feel empowered instead of scared.

“Everyone [in my family] has shoes and a flashlight under their bed. Everyone knows where we’re going. It’s just one of those things, where everyone gets the lecture beforehand.”

Slow slips around the world

B.C. scientists aren’t the only ones studying slow-slip. Japan has the same kind of locked tectonic plate scenario, and they have been getting these ‘clues’ that indicate a heightened risk of an earthquake every one to six years.

A recent major study from their seismologists correlated every large earthquake to a slow-slip event that was happening at the time — including the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

John Vidale is a seismologist at the University of Washington and says that our slow slip events are like clockwork.

“Slow slip in Cascadia is some of the loudest, most periodic in recurrence, and best studied in the world. As GPS measurements revealed … the plate boundary … is stuck for 11–15 months, then moves relatively quickly for several weeks. The cycle is remarkably close to periodic.”

Raising the alarm

So if we know exactly when these events start and we know they correlate to big earthquakes, shouldn’t we be sounding the alarm every 14 months?

Bird says that the information is available on their website, and they used to send out press briefings all the time, but it’s hard to get people interested in an event that happens so regularly with no impact.

She said that one of her colleagues likens it to the heightened risk of getting into a car accident.

“Going for a drive in the country on a Sunday, you’re not that likely to be in a car accident. But if it’s rush hour in Vancouver and there’s a game on … you’re more likely to be in an accident. You’re not necessarily going to be, but the probabilities are higher,” she said.

However, some emergency managers use the slow slip cycle to retrain their team or to get their communities prepared for earthquakes. And if they happen to be freshly trained or in the process of training when the ‘Big One’ does happen, they are that much sharper and ready for action.


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B.C.’s oil and gas regulator stepping up earthquake monitoring

A series of small but high-profile earthquakes triggered by hydraulic fracturing last year is behind a decision by B.C.’s oil and gas regulator to step up monitoring of seismic activity.

Starting June 1, the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) will collect ground motion data from new wells in gas fields near Fort St. John and Dawson Creek, the regulator announced in an industry bulletin this week.

The new permit conditions require companies to have “adequate monitoring” systems in place during hydraulic fracturing. In addition, companies will have to file a ground motion monitoring report within 30 days of completing a fracture.

“This is the next step in mitigation measures that started with earlier permit conditions in 2012, increased seismic monitoring in the northeast in 2013 and new regulations in 2015,” OGC spokesperson Alan Clay wrote in an email.

Fracking was deemed the cause of a 4.6 earthquake north of Fort St. John last summer—the largest “induced seismicity” event on record in B.C.

The quake had its epicentre at a drilling site operated by Progress Energy, the largest drilling company in B.C. The company temporarily suspended operations during an investigation. Shaking could be felt as far away as Charlie Lake.

While the quake caused no damage, it raised debate about industry regulation as the provincial government pins its hopes to a liquefied natural gas industry.

Progress Energy is the upstream subsidiary of Petronas, the company behind the $11 billion Pacific NorthWest LNG export facility outside Prince Rupert. The company recently slashed its Northeast B.C. operations as it awaits a federal decision on the facility.

More than 230 earthquakes were linked to fracking in an earlier Oil and Gas Commission study between August 2013 and November 2014, but only 11 could be felt at the surface.


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Fracking triggers 90% of large quakes in B.C., Alberta oil and gas patch

Fracking triggers 90% of large quakes in B.C., Alberta oil and gas patch

There’s bad news and good news when it comes to fracking and earthquakes in Western Canada, according to new research from a paper co-authored by a Geological Survey of Canada scientist.

The new research confirms a definitive link between hydraulic fracturing and almost every large induced earthquake recorded in B.C. and Alberta’s oil and gas patches since 1985.

In other words, scientists now have evidence that 90 per cent of seismic events over magnitude 3.0 that shook the region were triggered by crews fracking for oil and gas underground.

But with so many fracking wells in operation, the evidence also shows only a tiny fraction of them — less than one percent — directly triggered earthquakes.

Now, scientists say, they need to determine what factors caused 39 wells to trigger quakes.

Mysterious factors

They say it appears other factors they don’t yet fully understand must also be at play determining which fracking operations trigger earthquakes and which do not.

“It is important for us to realize that indeed hydraulic fracturing can induce earthquakes,” said Honn Kao, a research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada and one of 13 co-authors of a study, set to be published in the May-June issue of the peer-reviewed Seismological Research Letters, the journal of the Seismological Society of America.

“But the evidence so far indicates there are other factors that may be important in this process as well, so that we cannot blame all the hydraulic fracturing operations for inducing big earthquakes,” he said.

Kao said these other factors are likely related to local geology, local hydrology and the distribution of tectonic plates and fault lines, but more research is needed.

In British Columbia, where the government has pinned its financial future on ramping up fracking so it can export gas as liquified natural gas, these research results will be closely analysed.

‘Part of the risk’

“​We realize induced earthquakes are definitely part of the risk that may be associated with the development of the oil and gas,” said Kao. ” That is a cause for so much concern from the regulators as well as the public.”

“It’s important to conduct more research to figure out the best balance between the protection of the public safety and the environment and the economic benefits of developing unconventional oil and gas.

“We will provide the necessary science and all the scientific analysis to the policy making process so collectively B.C. and Alberta will make the wise decision if they want to proceed [with fracking] or not,” said Kao.

12,289 fracked wells studied

Kao and his fellow scientists based their research on 25 years of data on earthquake activity in a swath of northeastern B.C.and western Alberta, called the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, that’s not traditionally seismically active. They combed through data between 1985 and 2015 about seismic events larger than magnitude 3.0, as well as information from 12,289 hydraulically fractured gas and oil wells, and 1,000 fracturing waste disposal wells.

The results? More than 90 per cent of large earthquakes were associated with nearby fracking operations. More than 60 per cent of these quakes were linked to hydraulic fracture with about 30 to 35 per cent coming from disposal wells. Only five to 10 per cent of the earthquakes had a natural tectonic origin.

As well, just 0.3 per cent of the fracked wells triggered large earthquakes. And those large earthquakes didn’t result in any injuries or significant damage.

While the percentages sound small, lead author Gail Atkinson of the University of Western Ontario said that thousands of hydraulic fracturing wells had been drilled every year in the region, increasing the likelihood of earthquake activity.

“We haven’t had a large earthquake near vulnerable infrastructure yet,” she said, “but I think it’s really just a matter of time before we start seeing damage coming out of this.”

Atkinson said the new numbers could be used to recalculate the seismic hazard for the region, which could impact everything from building codes to safety assessments of critical infrastructure such as dams and bridges.

“Everything has been designed and assessed in terms of earthquake hazard in the past, considering the natural hazard,” she said. “And now we’ve fundamentally changed that, and so, our seismic hazard picture has changed.”

Different from U.S. frack ‘quakes

The research also confirmed differences scientists have long suspected between Canada and the United States. In the U.S., induced earthquakes are most often linked to the underground disposal of fracking waste materials, rather than the fracturing process itself.

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a process that involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure to fracture rock and release trapped natural gas.

Studies have linked fracking with earthquakes in the U.K., Oklahoma, Alberta, and in B.C.


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5.2 magnitude earthquake detected off Vancouver Island

5.2 magnitude earthquake detected off Vancouver Island

Earthquake struck around 3:30 p.m. PT at a depth of 10 kilometres, 205 kilometres west of Port Hardy.

A 5.2-magnitude earthquake struck off the west coast of Vancouver Island, near Port Hardy, Friday around 3:38 p.m. PT.

Earthquake Canada says the earthquake was not felt, and no tsunami was expected.

The shaker was centred 205 kilometres west-southwest of Port Hardy at a depth of 10 kilometres, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

There were no reports of damage and none are expected.


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$5 million to be spent on early warning earthquake sensors for B.C.

The provincial government is providing $5 million to Ocean Networks Canada, the organization that aims to install eight more seismic sensors on the ocean floor just off the west coast of Vancouver Island – the most likely location for the epicentre of a destructive earthquake in British Columbia.

The network of sensors detects the primary wave (p-wave), the initial movements of the earth’s crust when an earthquake occurs. P-waves are generally non-damaging and are the precursor of the secondary waves (p-wave), the waves that cause damage.

In order for a warning to be triggered, at least three sensors must go off to reduce the likelihood of false alerts.

With integration into alert systems, the detection of the arrival of p-waves will eventually lead to the creation of a more comprehensive early-warning system in British Columbia – allowing up to a 90 second for a major earthquake event.

Ocean Networks Canada, based at the University of Victoria, is also in the process of creating a software program that will alert infrastructure and critical service operators of an impending earthquake. A warning a few seconds ahead could be sufficient time to shut down gas lines, stop trains and surgeries, and alert students at schools and universities to take cover.

“This funding from the Province of British Columbia, along with support from key collaborators, is a welcome sign that earthquake early warning will soon become a reality,” said Kate Moran, President & CEO, Ocean Networks Canada in a statement.

“It is an important part of ONC’s vision, to use our knowledge and leadership to deliver solutions for science, society and industry. This earthquake early warning system means that BC communities at risk from major earthquakes, will be be able to better prepare for, and build resilience to earthquakes.”

In 2015, 50 Catholic schools and two public schools in the Lower Mainland received an early-warning alert systems that can detect an earthquake. The pilot project, funded jointly by the Archdiocese and the provincial government, required the installation of p-wave sensors at each school, buried two metres deep in the soil.


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Magnitude 4.7 earthquake detected off the coast of Vancouver Island

Magnitude 4.7 earthquake detected off the coast of Vancouver Island

A magnitude 4.7 earthquake was detected off the west coast of Vancouver Island this morning.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the tremor hit at 10:38 a.m. PST and had an epicentre 176 kilometres southwest of Port Hardy – near the border of the Explorer and Juan de Fuca plates. It had a depth of 20 kilometres.

No damage can be expected given the location, and a tsunamis warning was not declared.

Thousands of small earthquakes hit B.C. every year, but only a small fraction have a magnitude of 4.0 or greater.


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New earthquake technology could have forewarned 2001 Nisqually shaker

It’s been 15 years, but Victoria’s John Cassidy still clearly remembers the shaking he felt from a 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Washington State.

“Yeah I was actually at home sick that day so I was at home and everything just really started rattling and shaking and it was … the strongest shaking I’d ever experienced,” said the Natural Resources Canada seismologist based in Victoria B.C..

On Feb. 28, 2001, the quake, called the Nisqually earthquake, centred near Olympia, Wash. about 150 km southeast of Victoria, was felt across southwestern B.C., from northern Vancouver Island to the Okanagan.

While there was only minor damage in Victoria and Vancouver, Cassidy says it caused $1 billion worth of damage in the Seattle area along with numerous injuries.

Cassidy along with his colleagues studying earthquakes with the federal government are marking the anniversary of the quake by reflecting on how far technology has come in the study of seismic events, including one that can forewarn violent shaking from an earthquake when it begins.

“So if you’re far enough away from a large earthquake, there is the opportunity to have some warning time, in some cases five second, ten seconds, maybe a few minutes warning based on the travel time of the waves,” said Cassidy.

While he concedes that doesn’t sound like much, it could be enough time for someone to dive under a desk, move away from a window or even have automated systems open the doors to firehalls or warn surgeons to put down their scalpels.

Earthquake science still ‘young’

Cassidy says earthquakes like Nisqually and a similar, less powerful one that occurred on Dec. 29, 2015 near Sidney B.C., but was also felt across the South Coast, create opportunities for scientists to learn from the new monitoring devices now in place.

“We have many more instruments on the ground now. We have more precise locations. We can actually map the ocean plate, where those deep earthquakes are occurring,” he said. “So our understanding of how ground shaking varies with distance from an earthquake has moved forward.”

Scientists also have new tools like global positioning systems, which show earth movements every hour of every day, along with the ability to image the sea floor to look for faults.

“There’s a lot going on,” said Cassidy adding that earthquake science remains “very young,” as data is still missing from earthquakes which occurred thousands of years ago and there are faults which haven’t been discovered yet.

Still, despite the doom and gloom of a big one coming to the Pacific Northwest, there is optimism that the science that now exists can be used to better protect people living here.

“All of this new information feeds into our building codes, into our bridge codes, our dam codes and this information is being used to protect us from future earthquakes,” he said. “And one of the best ways to protect ourselves from future earthquakes is through the earthquake science, the earthquake engineering.”

Cassidy also celebrated the awareness being done in schools and by cities to inform residents about what to do when the shaking starts,

“It will make a difference when the next earthquake hits this region, so if people know what to do before an earthquake, during and after an earthquake, that will save lives, and that will make a huge difference in minimizing those future impacts.”


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128 B.C. school upgrades still awaiting seismic upgrades

While officials agree Tuesday night’s earthquake is a “perfect example” of why B.C. needs to upgrade schools still at high risk of structural collapse, there is still a lot of finger-pointing about the delays getting it done.

According to the Ministry of Education, a total of 342 schools still require seismic upgrades. Over the past decade, the provincial government put in place plans worth $2.2 billion to upgrade or replace 214.

But that still leaves 128 B.C. schools a high risk of collapse during an earthquake, with no plan in place to upgrade or replace them.

According to Education Minister Mike Bernier, in some cases the delays getting the work underway rest with the school districts.

“I think this earthquake is a perfect example and a wake-up call of why we don’t want to be waiting any longer,” said Bernier on Thursday morning.

“It’s one of the top priorities that I have within my mandate to continue to work with the school districts. The funding is there.

“Of course, the timing of that can only go as fast, and as quickly, and as efficiently as the school boards themselves work with us to make sure those priorities are delivered,” Bernier said.

VSB chair says the money isn’t there

But according to Vancouver School Board Chair Mike Lombardi it’s the ministry that is responsible for the delays stopping the upgrades from getting done.

There are 68 high-risk schools in Vancouver alone with no plan in place, and 21 of those are rated by the province at H1, the highest of the three levels of high risk, in the ratings system used by the province.

“We’ve done our preliminary work, but there’s been no approval at the ministry level,” said Lombardi this week.

“We want to get the job done,” Lombardi said. “What we need is the government to step up to the table, live up to their commitment and sign those project agreements so we can start doing the work.”

The fight over who is to blame for the delays has been going on for some time. Earlier this year, then-education minister Peter Fassbender denied media reports the province had pushed back the timetable for seismic upgrades by as many as ten years, to 2030.

Then just before Christmas the Vancouver School Board asked the province to extend the district’s seismic plan deadline from the end of January until June 16, 2016, so that the board could have more time to consult with parents and other stakeholders.

But that plan was rejected by the province.

“I actually denied that plan and said that that was unacceptable,” Bernier said.


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Earthquake detectors gave UBC researcher heads-up on quake

When Tuesday night’s 4.8 magnitude earthquake hit Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, Kent Johansen was working late in his home laboratory in Burnaby.

He heard an alarm go off. An earthquake was coming.

And for a man working with UBC’s Earthquake Engineering Research Facility on earthquake detection, that was good news — it meant the system worked.

“I’m thinking, this is serious: this is a real one,” he told On The Coast guest host Laura Lynch about the moment he saw the alarm.

“I went upstairs and got my seven-year-old daughter Freya, we got underneath the table in the living room, and I was devastated. I wanted to see all the data roll by!”

Thirteen seconds after Johansen got the warning, the quake hit.

Warnings can reduce casualties by half

Alarms powered by the UBC earthquake detectors have been placed in 61 schools on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, and more schools are planned to receive them.

If classes had been in session, students would have heard a loud siren before the quake hit. Schools in Victoria would have gotten about six seconds of warning before the quake hit, and Lower Mainland schools would have received 13 to 16 seconds.

While that might not seem like a lot of time, Johansen said that even a warning of three to four seconds can halve the number of casualties from an earthquake.

Johansen said he is happy with the way the system works, but hopes this quake gets British Columbians thinking about preparing for “the big one” in a more serious way.

“We don’t have a lot of the good ‘training’ earthquakes here in Vancouver, and that’s probably why we take the big one that’s lurking with such nonchalant distance,” he said.


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