January 1, 2016 1:23 am

Early-warning system successfully detects B.C. earthquake

WATCH: Tuesday's quake proved UBC's earthquake early-warning system works. And as Ted Chernecki reports, seconds can make the difference between life and death.


Six seconds doesn’t sound like a lot of time but when it comes to earthquakes, it can mean the difference between life and death.

UBC researchers have developed an earthquake early-warning system that is being tested in dozens of B.C. schools. During Tuesday night’s 4.7-magnitude temblor, they learned the technology shows promise.

Kent Johansen was under a table with his daughter before his East Vancouver home started shaking Tuesday night. That’s because he’s part of a team of researchers that installed 25 delicate sensors throughout the Lower Mainland. Those sensors, which are buried two metres underground and detect primary waves (P-waves), are constantly being monitored in his home.

According to Johansen, that early wave “travels at about six kilometers per second whereas the S-wave, which is the thing that moves and destroys buildings, is moving at about half the speed,” Johansen said.

WATCH: UBC researcher explains earthquake detection system

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There is a simpler early-warning system that has been around forever. Many animals can sense that primary wave and often give a warning with a bark or unusual behaviour.

“They’re very sensitive to vibrations because they’re still feeling that they’re being hunted and often they’re also laying on the ground,” said Alison Bird of Natural Resources Canada.

READ MORE: Critics say B.C. falling short on seismic upgrades

“What they often feel is that P-wave–which is the primary or presure wave–that first initial jolt that comes from an earthquake. And we may not feel that because it’s very subtle.”

If a 9.0-magnitude megaquake hits B.C., the epicentre will probably be 80 to 100 kilometres off the west coast of Vancouver Island. That means sensors could pick up the primary wave about a minute or more before buildings start rocking in downtown Vancouver.

That’s why there is an argument that B.C. should spend more money on earthquake detection.

Understanding earthquakes: How and why they happen

Johansen says Japan spends about $1.3 billion a year on earthquake warnings and preparedness.

“When we got into this project about three years ago, I think British Columbia was using about $80,000 a year,” he said.

Those following the research project on Twitter would have automatically been notified within a couple of seconds that an earthquake was imminent.

It’s hoped that warning window will only get wider with more research.

© 2016 Shaw Media

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