Canadian earthquake hazard mapping lags USGS badly: SFU geologist

Federal and provincial governments need to do more in BC

The federal and provincial governments in Canada need to do much more in the way of earthquake hazard mapping to help municipal planners and building designers, says a geologist studying the risk of earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest. Brent Ward, quaternary geologist at BC’s Simon Fraser University delivered that assessment in response to a journalist’s question at a press conference hosted by Zurich Insurance on May 2 at the 2011 RIMS Conference in Vancouver, BC.

Ward praised the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD) for setting up an emergency centre for BC’s lower mainland and bringing together the right stakeholders to discuss preparedness, not just for earthquakes, but other natural disasters such as windstorms. But he noted that Canada lags far behind the United States Geological Service in earthquake hazard mapping for the Pacific Northwest region.

“There’s a bunch of earthquake hazard mapping that’s going on at the site-specific scale; different things like a bridge or a BC hydro station,” said Ward, but pointed out that nothing comprehensive has been done. “Recently there was a map that was released for Victoria. Quite a few years ago there was a map released for Chilliwack and that’s it for the whole province.”

Ward also outlined the different types of quakes that occur in the region and the reasons why they occur. He explained that a major quake of magnitude 9.0 or higher like the one that occurred recently in Japan will happen at some point in the future in the Pacific Northwest because the same geological circumstances exist. The Juan de Fuca plate is sliding under the North American tectonic plate, causing an energy buildup that has to be released eventually. The last quake of this type occurred in the region on January 29, 1700.

“We know that these things happen anywhere from every 300 years to every 1,200 years. On average it’s every 500-600 years. We don’t know when the next one is going to be. It could happen tomorrow or it could happen in 200-400 years. It’s a very hard event to plan for, but when it happens it’s going to be bad.”

A more frequent type of earthquake, and what he said is cause for greater concern, are crustal quakes in the range of 7.0 to 7.5 on the Richter scale, similar to the one in Kobe, Japan in 1995. These occur because the of fractures in the North American plate caused by the stress of the Juan de Fuca plate underneath it.

“If we had one of those crustal earthquakes near population centres such as Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle, that would be a very significant event. Because these happen in the 10s of years, it’s much more of a likely probability,” he said, noting that the Kobe quake killed 5,000 and people and caused $100 billion in damage.

Preparedness plans

Businesses need to think not only about their property and business resiliency exposures but their people exposures and how those factor into business resiliency in the event of an earthquake, said Mike Kerner, CEO for Zurich global corporate in North America, at the press conference.

“All of the workers that will be impacted will have issues at home. They’ll need to be assisted in order to come back to help the business recover,” he noted. “Your disaster recovery plan should include that kind of thinking as to how do you help the employees recover in their personal lives.”

Mike Foley, CEO for Zurich North America commercial, pointed out that the risks around earthquake and wind events in the US states in the “ring of fire” area has risen significantly because of the population increase in that area over the last 30 years. He addressed the issue of rates and pricing by noting that reinsurance is a global activity and that incidents in one part of the world affect the entire portfolio.

“Wherever it occurs across the world, we would expect it to have impacts on rates and prices. We’d expect to see a normalization or an attempt to capture rate in the quake book for reinsurers overall and for anyone who’s insuring it locally,” he said.

Zurich has also released an earthquake risk management action plan called “Are you ready for the next big one?”

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