Canada due for a massive earthquake?

John Cassidy, an earthquake expert, is pictured following the earthquake in Chile earlier this year. Cassidy will deliver the Herzberg Lecture at Carleton on Nov. 9.(Photo provided by John Cassidy)

When will Canada’s next big earthquake strike? John Cassidy can’t say for sure. As far as earthquake science has come in the last 20 years, there’s still no “clear way to predict them,” he says.

And if the head of the Geological Survey of Canada’s earthquake seismology section doesn’t know, then, well, no one really does.

One thing he does know for sure? Canada will experience an earthquake of epic proportions

“Undoubtedly we will (see one soon),” says Cassidy, who is giving a lecture at Carleton this month titled Shaken and Stirred: The Cost of Earthquakes and How Science Can Help.

Every few hundred years, British Columbia is rumbled by a subduction earthquake—an event that can measure up to a magnitude of 9. The west coast has already seen 13 of them over the past 6,500 years.

“In the next 50 years, the estimates that have been calculated are between 10 and 15 per cent,” he says. “We’ve seen many, many of these over the past centuries.

“During the last one of these magnitude 9 earthquakes, a First Nations village (and everyone in the village) on the west coast of Vancouver Island was washed away.”

Shaking was so strong that people couldn’t stand. And the aftershocks continued for a full month.

If that sounds like a terrifying thought, consider this: Canada has three or four earthquakes a day.

Most hit the western coast of B.C.—the province is a seismic hotbed of activity where “the pacific plate is essentially sliding past North America.

“It’s the major plate boundary in Canada,” says Cassidy.

But a few hundred quakes also shake the St. Lawrence and Ottawa valleys each year. They’re just so small you probably didn’t notice.

More good news: Canada is extremely well prepared in the event of a perilous quake.

“We are prepared for an earthquake and getting better all the time,” says Cassidy.

Scientists are still learning about things like how buildings move during quakes, how soils might amplify shaking and how energy from earthquakes can be focused. But awareness and planning make all the difference.

Cassidy points to recent earthquakes in Chile and Haiti as examples.

Even though Chile’s quake was much stronger, the death toll paled in comparison—only 525 people died in Chile, compared to more than 300,000 in Haiti. That’s because when the ground started shaking, people knew what to do, says Cassidy. They got under tables, away from windows. And when the shaking stopped, they got outside to open areas and sought higher ground.

It’s the same story in Japan. Officials were even able to warn people seconds before the earthquake struck, preventing many deaths and injuries.

“They had about 25 to 30 seconds of warning before the damaging waves hit Tokyo,” says Cassidy, adding that they were able to stop high-speed trains, send warnings to people’s mobile devices and shut down nuclear power plants. “It’s something that couldn’t happen 10 or 20 years ago but now … there are these types of systems being developed and tested.”

In earthquake prone areas of Canada, like the west coast, bridges are specially retrofitted and buildings and schools are strengthened to withstand powerful quakes. Even elementary schools now have earthquake drills.

“Especially in countries like Canada … it’s not buildings collapsing, it’s objects falling, windows breaking,” he says. “Essentially it’s things flying around inside buildings that are the greatest hazard. Things are falling over, computers are flying across the room, lights might be coming down.”

There’s never a good time for an earthquake. But now is as good a time as any.


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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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