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Mexico had an early warning system for its big quake. Vancouver doesn’t yet

Earthquake early warning for Metro Vancouver?
The death toll from yesterday’s earthquake in Mexico could have been much worse, were it not for an early warning system But what about B.C.? Neetu Garcha reports.

Mexico City is still reeling from a 7.1-magnitude earthquake that killed at least 230 people.

The shaking brought widespread destruction, toppled buildings, tore up gas mains and spread fires across the capital city.

But Mexico has one thing on Vancouver, if the West Coast city should ever experience its dreaded “Big One”: an early warning system that could give them some time to find safety.

Coverage of the Mexican earthquake on Globalnews.ca:

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Mexico’s system

When the Mexican earthquake struck at its epicentre in Puebla State on Tuesday, a public warning system gave people about 15 seconds’ notice of what was to come.

It doesn’t sound like much time.

But it’s more than what residents of southwestern British Columbia could have when a predicted major earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone hits.

That quake could have a magnitude of anywhere between 8.0 and as high as 9.2, as estimated by a Pulitzer Prize-winning article in The New Yorker.

READ MORE: Earthquake warning sensors installed off B.C. coast

It’s not as though there are no early warning systems for an earthquake.

There’s one on the Massey Tunnel and UBC has been working on such a system for schools in B.C.’s southwest, said Teron Moore, a business analyst with Ocean Networks Canada.

But more work needs to be done before any system could help people on the scale that Mexico’s system did.

Volunteers and rescue workers search for children trapped inside at the collapsed Enrique Rebsamen school in Mexico City, on Sept. 19, 2017.
Volunteers and rescue workers search for children trapped inside at the collapsed Enrique Rebsamen school in Mexico City, on Sept. 19, 2017. Gerardo Carrillo/Reuters

How early detection works

B.C. has 38 earthquake sensors that are already operating, and another 40 are being installed near Vancouver Island.

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Earthquakes release energy that travel inside earth as seismic waves. The first waves are known as primary waves, or “P-waves.”

WATCH: UBC researcher explains earthquake detection system

Sensors can detect P-waves before the arrival of secondary waves, or “S-waves” — these are the ones that cause destructive shaking.

Some of these sensors are located beneath the ocean, while others are land-based.

But they won’t be ready to use until March 2019.

“We know there’s a lot more work that needs to be done,” B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth told Global News. “We want to have a comprehensive, province-wide approach.”

READ MORE: Vancouver designates 25 support hubs in case the ‘Big One’ strikes

But there’s another key difference between warning systems in Canada, and the ones that exist in other earthquake-prone countries, like Mexico and Japan.

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In those countries, the warning systems are public, while in Canada, they’re private. Any notice of a quake would only go to select parties like hospitals, airports and first responders.

B.C. may be working on a better system. But residents can only hope it will be activated in time for the Big One.

With files from Reuters