B.C. looking to buy first hybrid sensors to detect data for earthquake early warning

B.C. looking to buy new hybrid earthquake sensors to provide early warning data
WATCH: B.C.'s transportation ministry is looking to purchase 25 new hybrid earthquake sensors that would not only expand the existing strong motion sensor network, but also provide data for early warning systems. Kristen Robinson reports.

B.C. is building on its earthquake early warning system with plans to buy new hybrid sensors that would provide crucial early warning data that could give residents extra time to escape before the “Big One” hits.

The B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is seeking to purchase “25 new earthquake sensors that can be used to support and expand the existing Strong Motion (SM) Network and to simultaneously provide data for Earthquake Early Warning” in the province, according to an Invitation to Quote (ITQ) published on B.C. Bid last month.

WATCH: How new technology can help give advance warning of earthquakes in B.C.

“If we want to be able to respond, we need that early warning. We need that one or two minutes,” SFU Earth Sciences Professor Glyn Williams-Jones told Global News.

“I’m really excited because technology is getting there.”

The transportation ministry says there are currently about 140 earthquake sensors in the British Columbia Smart Infrastructure Monitoring System (BCSIMS), which helps to ensure highway structure safety.

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READ MORE: Experts: Vancouver Island will rip open like a zipper when overdue earthquake hits

The existing strong motion sensors measure big seismic waves that shake the ground, damaging buildings and infrastructure. They do not have the capability to provide data for organizations running earthquake early warning systems.

The new hybrid sensors can simultaneously measure big seismic waves and provide early warning data, a first for the ministry.

“Trying to be able to do the two together at the same time really is important,” said Williams-Jones, who also serves as co-director of SFU’s Centre for Natural Hazards Research.

The new hybrid sensors will be installed on various ministry bridges in coastal seismic zones.

WATCH: (Aired July 26, 2016) Earthquake warning sensors installed off B.C. coast

Earthquake warning sensors installed off B.C. coast
Earthquake warning sensors installed off B.C. coast

When an earthquake occurs, primary or P-waves are non-damaging waves that move faster than the secondary or S-waves, which cause the majority of shaking. Experts say the ability to quickly detect the P-waves can provide seconds of advance warning before the S-waves strike.

“These P-waves…are moving at six or eight kilometres per second,” said Williams-Jones. “If we can get those in early, then we have a chance to respond before the damage happens. Get them an alert.”

When a deadly 7.1-magnitude quake struck near Mexico City in 2017, many lives were saved thanks to an early warning system that gave people a few extra seconds to flee before the ground started to shake.

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“We have the chance of having a minute, or maybe two minutes, to get down to actually grab onto a table, get into a safe place, to pull your car off to the side of the road,” Williams-Jones said.

A cutting edge early warning system developed by the University of Victoria’s Ocean Networks Canada is already nearing completion off the B.C. coast.

In February 2016, the province invested $5 million in the three-year project to deliver an earthquake early warning system for southwestern B.C.

Ocean floor sensors buried 80 kilometres offshore could give residents notice anywhere from 20 seconds to two minutes in advance of a tremor.

WATCH: (Aired July 25, 2016) B.C.’s first underwater earthquake sensors being placed off Vancouver Island

B.C.’s first underwater earthquake sensors being placed off Vancouver Island
B.C.’s first underwater earthquake sensors being placed off Vancouver Island

Ocean Networks Canada expects the system will be installed, tested and delivered to Emergency Management BC by this month.

Land-based seismic and GPS sensors are also being installed on Vancouver Island.

Meantime, the ITQ for the province’s new hybrid sensors closes on March 18.

With earthquake early warning alerts to be sent out via social media and smartphone apps in the near future, Williams-Jones predicts the sensor technology will eventually be able to reach every home in the province.

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“I believe in my lifetime we can easily have a dense network of instruments all over the place that will allow us to actually respond,” he said.