Reducing the Risk of Tsunamis on Canada’s West Coast

July 22, 2016

Small earthquakes regularly rattle Canada’s West Coast, but as the world witnessed in Haiti in 2010, Japan in 2011, and most recently, Nepal in 2015 – large, catastrophic earthquakes can occur at any given time. The overwhelming consequences of events like natural disasters cannot be controlled, but can be minimized.

“A major risk of these earthquakes is often the resulting tsunamis,” said Dr. Peter Anderson, Simon Fraser University (SFU) Researcher. “Early warning of these impending disasters would go a long way to evacuating at-risk communities and saving lives.”

Even with today’s evolving state of technology, experts still don’t have the full capabilities to predict when and where an earthquake will take place. However, it is possible to estimate the probability of earthquakes in specific regions by studying the history and frequency of earthquakes, movement of plates in the earth, and if pressure is building along fault lines. These methods allow people to implement at least some means of protection against the impact, including the potential for post-earthquake tsunamis.


“Public warning must not be viewed as just technology; but as a unified system made up of several inter-related elements including: hazard identification, assessment, analysis, monitoring and alerting, community team building, and education” - Philip Dawe.

While there has been much progress made to implement effective warning systems, some communities such as those found in remote coastal areas of British Columbia are still searching for the best means to reduce the risks posed by these tsunamis.

Foresight and innovation

In April 2014, planners from Emergency Management British Columbia (EMBC) and researchers from SFU embarked on a project, aimed at reducing tsunami risk on Canada’s West Coast by providing effective, integrated, and consistent notification to coastal communities. This was achieved by implementing modern planning methods and technologies to already existing practices, as well as improving education and training about public warnings.

The reality is that BC’s varied ecology poses many challenges, with coastal, mountainous, plateau and desert terrains, as well as river and lake systems, having a strong influence on climate and flood characteristics.

It is essential to implement response plans for BC’s hard-to-reach coastal communities who would be especially vulnerable because they might not be readily accessible to emergency services and could lose access to necessities like phones, water, gas and hydro.

“Integrating notification systems into regular operations has immense benefits,” added Anderson. “It builds familiarity with systems, enables better thinking skills, and provides better response to emergencies, including responder safety.”

The project, which was completed in March 2016, was funded by the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP), a federal program led by Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS), in partnership with Public Safety Canada.

In the first phase of the project, researchers carried out a study of at-risk coastal communities to determine their level of preparation and if they were suitable for piloting new alert technologies such as an emergency alert system, two-way portable and mobile satellite-based notification, two-way voice-radio capability, weather radio, and social media tools like Twitter.

The second phase was much more hands-on. Researchers visited at-risk communities and conducted a set of pilots to evaluate how well selected technologies could operate in remote locations. Community leaders were given proactive opportunities to test and compare the technologies with their existing measures, in addition to participating in demonstrations, lessons, and training activities.

Three of the innovative notification systems tested were Mobile Satellite (MSAT) EmergNet,  two-way messaging, as well as Alert Ready, a Canada-wide system developed in partnership with federal, provincial, and territorial emergency management officials, Environment Canada, and the broadcast industry, which is designed to deliver immediate critical alerts to Canadians through major television and radio broadcasters.

“We’ve already seen some real-world impacts from the community visits and pilots; many are now using some of these tools as part of their regular operations,” said Anderson. “And several others are planning to do so in the near future.”

Science and research provide the foundation for action

Another outcome was the production of a B.C. oriented tsunami notification methods tool kit for community planning. The toolkit aims to provide communities and other coastal authorities with information on various warning methods and procedures. It can also be used when teaching and training the public on the usage of notification systems and the actions they should take to protect themselves when an actual event occurs. The toolkit is available for download.

“Educating the public will increase the likelihood that they will take actions to prepare themselves before an actual event occurs,” said Ralph Mohrmann, Assistant Director Operations, EMBC. “This toolkit provides local authorities and their communities with information that will allow them to evaluate the many options available to provide notifications and warnings to the public of a potential or pending Tsunami wave.”

While the toolkit was developed specifically with tsunami hazards in mind, it may also be applicable to many other hazards that could impact communities such as floods, fires, and tornadoes.

In BC, communication with remote regions and populations-at-risk remains challenging because of limited transportation and isolated settlements. This project’s developments will lay the foundations for creating a new range of options for integrating emergency notification and tools in case of disasters. As the system expands, it could include participation of cell phone companies, more social media websites, and internet distributors.

“Public warning must not be viewed as just technology; but as a unified system made up of several inter-related elements including: hazard identification, assessment, analysis, monitoring and alerting, community team building, and education,” said Philip Dawe, Section Head, Multi-Agency Crisis Management, DRDC CSS.

 The province has already embarked on several initiatives to bring affordable broadband services to all residents, including improved access to high-speed internet and cellular service in rural and remote areas. Above all, a number of methods and technologies used in tsunami notification warning will serve as groundwork elements in the formation of an all-hazards notification system that would provide alerts for disasters like thunderstorms, floods, fires, contamination, terrorist threats, air quality, and more.

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