Earthquake preparations in Vancouver guard against the Big One

A major quake will hit sooner, closer than previously thought.

Paul Taggart /Corbis

The opening of the Port Mann Replacement Bridge in suburban Vancouver this fall will come after more than three years of work at a cost of $3.3 billion— the largest transportation infrastructure project in B.C. history. Largely unnoticed, and just a couple hundred metres downstream, work on a project of similar scope will keep right on going until 2014. Whereas the bridge is intended to deal with capacity issues, the new Port Mann Water Supply Tunnel is in large part a response to seismic concerns. “In the days following an earthquake, getting water to people will be the most important thing,” says Frank Huber, a development manager with the Metro Vancouver regional district.

According to two new studies, a big West Coast quake might arrive sooner and be more damaging than previously thought. One investigation, an analysis of the Cascadia earthquake-prone zone between southern B.C. and northern California published by the U.S. Geological Survey, identified 19 major earthquakes (with a magnitude averaging about nine) over the past 10,000 years. A second study, published in the journal Geology, analyzed fault-zone temperatures along the Pacific Coast and concluded that potential earthquake epicentres might occur up to 55 kilometres farther east than previously thought, nearer cities such as Vancouver and Victoria.


The studies are merely two in a series that since the 1970s have escalated fears of a major earthquake. Metro Vancouver alone has been spending around $100 million a year on seismic upgrading, with the province budgeting a similar amount to retrofit schools. Seismic compliance also adds considerable cost to renovations and new construction—in the range of 10%, according to a study conducted in Christchurch, New Zealand, following its devastating earthquake in 2011. While creating thousands of jobs, the efforts crimp the public purse and raise costs for companies and consumers, even playing a role in the province’s notoriously high housing prices.

But is enough being done? The insurance industry is concerned that it may not be—especially by the private sector—and has commissioned a study into the costs of a major earthquake, “both in terms of insured value and what can’t be insured,” says Lindsay Olson, a vice-president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada. The report was precipitated in part by the 2011 earthquake in Japan.

Japan’s subsea subduction quake resembled the last Big One to strike the northwest, on Jan. 26, 1700, which flattened cedar forests and wiped out coastal villages. As the U.S. Geological Survey report stresses, it’s not a matter of if, but when the next one will occur. “By the year 2060,” it summarizes, “if we have not had an earthquake, we will have exceeded 85% of all the known intervals of earthquake recurrence in 10,000 years.”