Every few months, many residents of Victoria hear dishes rattling because of barely perceptible earth tremors. But, until recently, southern British Columbians had been spared the anxiety that haunts most residents of northern California, where scientists say that a major earthquake is almost certain to occur some day. Now, more recent studies have persuaded some seismologists that Canada’s West Coast could be struck by one of the biggest earthquakes the world has ever known, perhaps in the next 50 to 100 years. Partly as a result of the new fears, federal and B.C. government officials met with members of industry and special-interest groups in Vancouver last week to begin drawing up British Columbia’s first full-scale plan for coping with the aftermath of a major quake.
Although northern California has long been regarded as a high-risk area, the potential for a major quake beneath Vancouver Island and the coasts of Oregon and Washington was only considered a remote possibility until the 1980s. John Adams, a seismologist at the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa, said that geological and geophysical research carried out during the past three years convinced him and other experts that there is a good
chance of a major quake in the area during the next half-century. Adams added that evidence suggesting that there had been major earthquakes in the area hundreds of years ago implies there could be another in the future.
Geologists say that a major quake would be the result of shifts in two of the huge masses of rock—known as tectonic plates—that make up the Earth’s surface. With glacially slow speed, two plates are currently moving together beneath southern British Columbia. Scientists say that, eventually, the Juan de Fuca Plate—which runs beneath the Pacific Ocean from the middle of Vancouver Island to Cape Blanco in Ore£ gon—could slip beneath the 5 edge of the continent-spans ning North American plate, 5 setting off a massive earth5 quake. And even if the West Coast is spared a quake in the nine-point range, experts say that the area could be threatened by lesser seismic upheavals. Garry Rogers, a scientist with the Geological Survey’s Pacific Geoscience Centre near Victoria, said that the giant plates routinely buckle, causing earthquakes in the sixto seven-point range.
Meanwhile, officials from Emergency Preparedness Canada and the B.C. ministry of the solicitor general met to draw up detailed plans for coping with casualties and destruction. Still, Murray Stewart, the Victoria-based director of the emergency program for the B.C. government, expressed concern about whether the government of Premier William Vander Zalm will allocate the large amount of public money needed to create the organized system. Said Stewart: “It is very difficult to convince people to devote the big bucks to get ready.” As well, officials of the Geological Survey say they have been unable to obtain enough federal funds to install more seismic sensors in British Columbia and to pay for the satellite monitoring of the subtle movements of land masses. But those tools could help scientists predict when a major earthquake might be coming—and enable B.C. residents to prepare for the worst.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.