Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Imagine this: when the Big One hits

B.C. spends 1.2 million on a practice session to check on earthquake preparednessDanger danger dangerearly warning

At 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday, June 7, the Big One will hit B.C.: a magnitude-9 earthquake that will shake bridges and buildings to the ground, liquefy the land, swallow housing estates whole and unleash a tsunami on Victoria.

Before you panic, this is only an imaginary scenario. The province is spending $1.2 million to envision such a catastrophe and put emergency services through their paces. The drill — called Exercise Coastal Response, based out of Port Alberni and overseen by Emergency Management BC — includes about 600 people from more than 50 agencies. Over three days from June 7 to 10, they will be deploying emergency medical teams and response crews across the west coast of Vancouver Island, where a tsunami would hit hardest, and practicing all the decision making that would be needed during a real emergency.

The exercise should highlight which lines of communication are running smoothly and where gaps lie within the system. Such gaps might be expected; in 2014, the province's auditor general Russ Jones concluded that the province hadn't made much progress preparing for a catastrophic quake since the last report 17 years earlier. After the 2012 earthquake that hit near Haida Gwaii, for example, both local governments and communities didn't know how to respond after the quake and they had a cumbersome way to notify each other of problems. Hopefully some of that has changed. The 2016 provincial budget includes $65 million in new spending for emergency prevention and preparedness, and Emergency Management BC received a $3-million boost over three years on a $6.2-million operating budget.

But this upcoming exercise may not spot some of the worst deficiencies. B.C.'s system for monitoring quakes is only about one-tenth the size of Japan's, despite the fact that both areas lie alongside a so-called megathrust fault line capable of producing giant earthquakes and tsunamis. B.C. has the ability to put in place an early-warning system, giving hospitals and transit systems a critical few seconds to prepare for heavy shaking, but such a warning system has been implemented in only a handful of specific locations (the George Massey Tunnel, for one) with no warnings for the general public. We know how to build quake-resistant skyscrapers and homes, but many older buildings haven't been brought up to standard, including many elementary schools. We know what needs to happen. But without a recent quake to galvanize politicians and free up more public funds, a lot of it simply hasn't been done.

A quake in the making

About 100 kilometres off the west coast of Vancouver Island, the sea floor — or the Juan de Fuca plate — is slowly ramming under the North American plate of our continent like a wedge being shoved under a floorboard. This is ongoing at about the same rate that fingernails grow. Along this Cascadia subduction zone, the friction caused by the plates rubbing together has locked large sections into place. But the strain has been building, little by little, since the last major rupture 316 years ago on Jan. 26, 1700. That's when a 1,000 kilometre section of the fault jerked 20 metres in just seconds, creating a tsunami that hammered Vancouver Island and travelled all the way to Japan. Such slips have occurred at least 22 times in the past 11,000 years, meaning that on average they strike every 500 years. But sometimes they're 200 years apart; sometimes 1,000 years.

For years Michael Bostock, a seismology professor at the University of British Columbia, has been studying the so-called slow quakes from deep down in the megathrust fault. About every 14 months, the plates slip a few centimetres over a period of several weeks. No one feels them but these slips add strain to the plate lying closer to the surface. The strain continues to build. This spring, Bostock says he plans to open up the drywall of his older Vancouver home to bolt down the supports — a retrofit that can make an older building more quake-resistant. It's what everyone with older homes like this should do, but it costs money and most people, like Bostock, simply haven't gotten around to it yet.

Bostock and others, including the auditor general and quake researcher John Clague at Simon Fraser University, for years have bemoaned the state of B.C.'s earthquake monitoring infrastructure. "Fifteen to 20 years ago, Canada was ahead of the U.S. in many regards," Bostock says. "Unfortunately we haven't kept pace." When the magnitude-8 Haida Gwaii quake struck in 2012, he says half the seismic network was down due to poor maintenance and a lack of funding. Those detectors can't stop a quake or mitigate its damage, but they can help scientists to learn more, assess risks more accurately, and even provide critical seconds of warning.

The Big One hits

On June 7 the fault ruptures. From Oregon to the northern tip of Vancouver Island — a stretch of 1,300 km — the Earth suddenly shifts. The plates slip up to 40 metres against each other, causing the seafloor to lurch upward by 10 metres, instantly creating a mountain of water that then collapses as its energy dissipates into a massive rolling wave. Deep at sea, the wave is only centimetres tall but hundreds of kilometres wide, and moving at 800 km/h.

Seismometers on the ocean floor first detect the movement up to a minute before the shaking is felt on land. The Neptune network — a series of instruments wired for instant data transmission to monitoring offices — has the capacity to act as a provincial early-warning system. Seismometers on the seafloor can detect the non-destructive P waves of an earthquake, which travel fastest and are seen first, in the same way that lightning is seen before thunder is heard. But this hasn't been set up yet. Oceans Network Canada just now is beta-testing the software needed to send early-warning alerts. And they have a $5-million grant from Emergency Management BC to improve the network, add more sensors, seismometers and a tilt-meter to monitor plate motions. The first of these installations is planned for later this month.

In 2009, the Ministry of Transport contracted Vancouver-based Weir-Jones Engineering to hook up a ShakeAlarm warning system for the Massey Tunnel, which runs below the Fraser River. It detected last year's Dec. 29 magnitude-4.8 quake northeast of Victoria more than 10 seconds in advance, but that quake wasn't big enough to shut the tunnel down.

Today's shaking is strong enough to trigger action: the signal lights in both directions turn red. Traffic stops, so the tunnel is clear when 100 m of fine clay beneath the structure liquefies and the tunnel collapses. A couple of office towers in Vancouver equipped with similar ShakeAlarm systems receive the same warning. This quake comes just one month before ShakeAlarm was due to ship 15 units to Victoria and Port Alberni for sale to consumers, says company operations manager Andrew Weir-Jones.

Meanwhile a warning system developed by UBC engineer Carlos Ventura and funded in part by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, beeps at 50 Catholic schools and two public schools in the Lower Mainland. It's too early for students to be at school, so the alarms ring in empty halls (just as they did for the Dec. 29 quake, which struck at 11:34 p.m.). Many of the 342 schools deemed to be at risk sustain serious damage, even though the province has set aside $2.2 billion to upgrade or replace 214 of them.

As far away as Manitoba, people look up from their morning coffee wondering what's going on. As many as 8,000 older buildings in Vancouver — including city hall, which was undergoing seismic upgrades — are damaged. Hundreds collapse in a cloud of rubble.

In Whistler, tourists stumble and fall to the ground. In restaurants, they duck under their tables while dishes and glasses crash to the floor. At home, one mother puts her arms around her children to protect them, but she can't get them under the dining table: the shaking is too strong to allow anyone to move. Those who have the MyShake app on their cell phones send data automatically to the University of California at Berkeley where professors are trying to convert the built-in vibration sensors into quake detectors, although this quake hits before the vibration can act as an alarm system.

Most wood-framed homes and modern builds are spared. But in Lions Bay part of the mountainside slips away. The massive landslide sweeps homes into Howe Sound. The highway and railway both are completely wiped out, which cuts off crucial supply lines. In 2008, Andree Blais-Stevens, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, mapped the risk zones for landslides along the Sea to Sky Highway: the entire stretch from Horseshoe Bay to Porteau Cove was lit up red as a high-risk zone, along with the north face of Mount Currie.

In Pemberton Meadows, a different tragedy unfolds as the shaking liquefies the ancient river floodplain. Farming structures sink into the mire. The front end of a truck sinks into the sandy soil, making it look comically like a duck diving for crackers. There will be no potato crop in Pemberton this year.

About 15 minutes after the quake, that massive wave hits the west side of Vancouver Island, sweeping two hikers on the West Coast Trail out to sea. As it hits the narrow Alberni Inlet, the restriction squeezes the wave higher and higher on its 40-km approach into Port Alberni. A wall of water takes out a hotel and buildings drops cars onto houses and scatters trees like toothpicks.

Exactly 35 minutes after the quake, the tsunami hits near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island. Although the wave is just 3.5-m high and smaller than what extreme surfers would attempt to ride, it is so long that it carries its mass of water far inland.

Assessing the damage

As the day unfolds, information flows into the Provincial Regional Operations Centres and then onward to the Provincial Emergency Operation Centre. The numbers start to roll in. More than 92,000 people can't stay in their homes tonight in Vancouver; many won't ever be able to go back. Half will stay with family and friends, but beds are made available for 25,000 people, and food and water for one million people. Up to 10,000 portable toilets are dispatched. People are advised to stay off their phones to keep the capacity free for emergency workers. Millions of people post their status on Facebook, as advised by the government, to let loved ones know they are safe.

Hospitals are overwhelmed. Critical infrastructure, including roads, power lines, cell towers and ports, have been wiped out or are struggling. B.C.'s Public Safety Lifeline Volunteers establish centres to help people in the affected areas, and specialized response teams such as Vancouver's Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 are dispatched to the hardest hit areas.

In the Sea to Sky corridor, local emergency program managers such as Ryan Wainwright, manager for the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, are on the phone trying to work out what's needed where, and how to get food to the corridor population with the highway wiped out.

"We have access to emergency powers: we can ration or set prices," says Wainwright. "We'll work with the grocery association, for example, to see if we can get food in. There's about three days of food in the grocery store, but there are also a lot of farming and First Nations people to look to. We're not necessarily bringing in mac and cheese to get people fed."

The Sea to Sky has more than the usual amount of practice in mobilizing emergency networks. "We're the second busiest region in the province in terms of emergency response, after Prince George," says Wainwright. "We just live in a very hazardous landscape. In the last year we had fires, flooding and landslides, like that (April 19, 2015 rock) slide on the Chief."

During last summer's forest fires, for example, precautionary evacuation planning was in place, and security staff was hired to stop people from going into the backcountry. Back in 2013 there was an emergency exercise drill for the Pemberton Valley, says Wainwright. Then, as always, the lesson learned was to make sure everyone has enough supplies in their homes to survive 72 hours.

Nine hours after the quake, a five metre-high wave hits Japan. With plenty of warning, the country is prepared; lives are spared but there is a lot of damage. Days, weeks and months after the quake, the final tally is $75 billion in losses and damages for B.C.

During this whole imaginary exercise, groups will be tasked with making all the calls to collect information and make decisions about needed supplies, medicines and food. The point is to test lines of communication, to see if decisions can be made in a timely manner with the right information, and whether people know who is responsible for what. "You want to observe and then extract lessons and changes to implement," says Wainwright.

There is an alphabet soup of agencies involved, and a line-of-command diagram that looks like a massive snail spiralling in toward the key people. Money is still being poured into the system just to organize and rationalize it; this year, the Fire Chiefs Association of British Columbia is getting $165,000 just to create a database of emergency management and fire service resources, and $25,000 is going toward earthquake-risk assessments.

And that's just B.C. More broadly, the Canadian federal government is also undertaking two linked exercises: Joint Task Force Pacific is conducting the (somewhat comically named) project Staunch Maple, and Public Safety Canada is running Exercise Pacific Quake 2016. On top of all that the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency is conducting an exercise called Cascadia Rising 2016, for which they'll need to be in communication with the Canadian teams.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of such an exercise is to remind the public, yet again, that a Big One really is in the cards, and we should be prepared.

"When I first arrived in B.C. there was a lot of pressure on the government to upgrade infrastructure, in particular schools. We worked on that, but I think we have fallen behind schedule," says Bostock. "People become blasé. They see the pictures of disasters in other places, but it rapidly fades from memory."

Danger Danger Danger

A magnitude-9 megathrust quake is the biggest, but not necessarily the worst quake that could hit B.C.. Here are the three main scenarios:

Cascadia megathrust: The shaking would start about 100 kms offshore Vancouver Island and create a tsunami. Because the fault is relatively far away, we could have a warning of seconds. The last quake of this magnitude was in 1700.

Inter-plate quakes: The shaking would originate deeper within the Juan de Fuca plate but could be closer to population centres, such as 40 to 50 kms below Victoria. These are likely to be smaller quakes, up to magnitude-7, but because they are directly beneath highly-populated areas they could do more damage. The 2001 magnitude-6.8 Nisqually earthquake centred near Olympia, Wash., injured 400 people, took out the air traffic control tower at Sea-Tac terminal, and caused between $1 billion and $4 billion in damage.

Crustal quakes: These would strike within the North American plate and could be up to magnitude-7.5. The 1946 magnitude-7.3 Vancouver Island earthquake struck near unpopulated forest, but caused the Lions Gate Bridge to sway and the Hotel Vancouver to catch on fire as gas lines cracked. These faults are poorly mapped, so we don't know where they all are.

Early Warning

MEXICO — Mexico City was the first city to install a public broadcast early warning system, in 1991. Acapulco got 24 seconds of warning for the 2014 Guerrero earthquake.

JAPAN — This technology-heavy country is ahead of the crowd. Bullet trains have had early warning systems in place since the 1960s. National public earthquake early warnings started in 2007, with broadcasts carried on TV, radio and every cell phone in the country. People got 15 to 20 seconds of warning before the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

U.S. WEST COAST — Despite a healthy national budget, early warning has been slow to come to the U.S. The ShakeAlert system has been sending alerts to beta testers in California since 2012 and the Pacific Northwest since 2015 and were of use in the 2014 Napa quake. Systems are in place to shut down nuclear reactors and halt public transit such as San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system.

B.C., CANADA — The Lower Mainland's Massey Tunnel has had a ShakeAlarm warning system since 2009; a handful of private buildings and a few dozen schools also have alarms in place. A provincial system is not in operation, though Oceans Network Canada is working on one.