Column: Earthquakes happen, whether we’re ready or not

An earthquake will happen any time, any place, any season, and under any condition. Ready for that?

The recent report British Columbia Earthquake Preparedness by Henry Renteria prepared for the Attorney General and Minister of Justice highlighted what we all knew already. At all levels, we’re not ready for the big earthquake. Actually, we’re not really up to speed for a medium one either.

We live in the most seismically active region in Canada yet we are stunningly complacent about earthquake hazards. They shimmer under our feet every day and the Geological Survey of Canada records about 1,200 a year in British Columbia. Some 300 of them occur around Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. The vast majority of them are too small to be felt but occasionally a wake-up shaker happens.

In just over the past 300 years we’ve had three great earthquakes (magnitude 8.0 or higher). There was the M9.0 in 1700 that forced the undersea Cascadia thrust fault to rupture along a 1,000 kilometre length from mid Vancouver Island to northern California and sent a tsunami to Japan.  In 1899 there was a M8.0 shaker along the Yukon-Alaska border and in 1949 a M8.1 quake shook Haida Gwaii. In addition there have been seven major quakes (M7.0 and higher) since 1872.

Decades may separate these major events in B.C. and perhaps it’s that very elusiveness of time that encourages people to shrug off preparedness for another day while focusing on immediate  needs.

Renteria said in his report that, in British Columbia, the lack of significant seismic activity near highly populated areas has resulted in widespread apathy. As a result, earthquake preparedness has not received the day-to-day attention that other pressing needs have received. Consequently, he wrote, earthquake and disaster preparedness programs have been cut or restricted in growth and resources have been devoted to other priorities and programs.

Just a month ago the Liberal government got into a squawk with the Vancouver School Board over delays in seismic upgrades to some B.C. schools. Upgrades for high-risk Vancouver schools originally scheduled to be done by 2020 got shifted to 2030 while high risk schools outside Vancouver will be done by 2025 with a smorgasbord of them in various stages of approval. That may be buying time but it may be playing with time too.

Earthquakes strike without warning and each one is unique as to its damage and danger level. The largest recorded earthquakes are subduction types in which friction builds as one tectonic plate slides beneath another. When the energy from that friction is released, the earthquake happens. The biggest one recorded was an M9.5 off the coast of Chile in 1960.

The size of an earthquake is controlled by the length of the geologic fault where it occurs and the longer the fault, the bigger the potential quake. Currently, there are no known faults capable of generating an M10.0 or larger earthquake.

Off-the-scale earthquakes do happen. But they’re off the planet. Further afield, check out the starquake that happened on the surface of an exotic neutron star also known as a magnetar and quaintly named SGR 1806-20. Just 20 kilometres across, it is 50,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Sagittarius. The starquake, which was detected December 27, 2004, was some kind of momentary structural re-arrangement and released more energy in a tenth of a second than the Sun emits in 100,000 years. Astronomers and space scientists worldwide were jaw-dropped.

Renteria concluded that, overall, it seems that progress on earthquake preparedness has been limited. Simply put, sufficient resources and priority have not been devoted to this effort.

An earthquake will happen any time, any place, any season, and under any condition. Ready for that?

If not, check out the government website on preparedness at www.embc.gov.bc.ca

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