A major earthquake in B.C. is not a matter of if

According to the Geological Survey of Canada, southwestern B.C. is at high risk with a 30 per cent chance of a significant earthquake

In the past couple of weeks, there were four earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest of a magnitude 4.0 or greater. From October 1st to November 1st, there were 84 quakes recorded in southwestern B.C including three shimmers in the Abbotsford/Chilliwack area. OK, so they weren’t much – 2 pointers on the magnitude scale.

The ground beneath our feet is constantly shaking and jostling, so much so that it was in the sights of the Insurance Bureau of Canada when they designed two scenarios to predict the economic consequences of a future great quake, one on the west coast of Vancouver Island and Washington State and the other in the Quebec/Ontario region which is also a seismic zone.

Last week IBC released its 345-page report, billed as the most comprehensive study of its kind in Canada. The hypothetical scenario on the west coast was a 9.0 quake 75 km west of Vancouver Island at a depth of 11 km. The cost? Some $75 billion.

The last earthquake impact study in Canada was done in 1992 by Munich Re based in Germany, one of the world’s leading re-insurers. IBC wanted a comprehensive up-to-date look at the financial consequences of a major quake in Canada, especially in light of events around the world in the past decade and the pressing need for preparedness for catastrophic events.

Recent devastating earthquakes affecting populated and wide reaching areas include the Indonesian great quake in 2004 at magnitude 9.1 which triggered the tsunami that killed over 280,000 people, Japan (M9.0 in 2011), Chile (M8.8 in 2010), New Zealand (M7.0 in 2010), and Turkey (M7.1 in 2011). In 2012 there was the M7.7 earthquake off Haida Gwaii in October and the Banda Sea (M7.1) in December as well as earthquakes in Guatemala and Myanmar. Globally in 2013 there have been 15 earthquakes of a magnitude 7.0 or more.

Are we ready for this?

According to IBC’s report, Canada records about 4,000 earthquakes annually. The majority of them are small and unfelt but about 24 are significant and they are concentrated in the two study areas of B.C.’s west coast and southern Quebec/southeastern Ontario. But these two relatively small targeted geographical zones actually represent 40 per cent of the nation’s population, making them strategically and economically very important.

In the face of a major quake (magnitude 7.0-7.9) or great quake (magnitude 8.0 or more) in the Pacific Northwest, life as we know it would profoundly change. Buildings, roads, bridges, airports, seaports, power stations, hospitals, pipelines (both those carrying water or oil), buried services, transmission towers and communications, and mass transit systems are all at risk of damage or destruction.

Thousands of people are at risk of being killed, displaced or isolated. A tsunami off the west coast of Vancouver Island could re-arrange the coastline, threatening the survival of communities like Ucluelet or Tofino.

There are the destructive consequences of liquefaction in Delta, Richmond, and other sea-level reclaimed areas. The risk of flooding would affect cities, towns, coastlines, rivers and their tributaries. Hillside structures would be at risk of landslides. Fires could be hard to contain if fire fighters are unable to reach them due to road damage or a water supply for their hoses has collapsed. The initial quake would be followed by thousands of aftershocks that would add to the damage and persist for weeks, months or perhaps a year.

No wonder the report pegged the potential economic destruction at $75 billion.

According to the Geological Survey of Canada, southwestern B.C. is especially at high risk with a 30 per cent chance of a significant earthquake delivering substantial damage in the next 30 years.

It’s time to get prepared for this.