Sensors to warn people of an earthquake installed in Ottawa area

Ottawa residents will one day receive a three to 10 second advance warning of an earthquake before the ground starts shaking.

Natural Resources Canada has been installing seismic sensors in the capital region over the past week that are part of the Earthquake Early Warning Network, designed to send out a notification through electronic devices before the strong shaking from the earthquake begins.

“What that does is it gives people the time to drop, cover and hold on, so that they can be prepared just before they start feeling that shaking,” said Chris Boucher, Seismic Analyst with Natural Resources Canada.

The Earthquake Early Warning Network will have 400 sensors installed in areas of earthquake risk across Canada, including in eastern Ontario. Boucher says the seismic sensors will detect the primary waves of an earthquake, which are very weak, and then send out the alert.

The TitanSMA seismic equipment in a lab at Natural Resources Canada in Ottawa. (Natural Resources Canada)

“So these network of stations, what it does is it quickly digitizes that information, sends it to our data centres, calculates the location and the magnitude of that earthquake and if it reaches a certain threshold of shaking, it will send out alerts to cellphones, TVs and radios before that secondary waves and strong shaking starts,” Boucher told CTVNewsOttawa.ca.

In June 2010, a magnitude 5 earthquake in Val-des-Bois, Que. caused damage in parts of western Quebec, while rattling buildings and windows in downtown Ottawa. Natural Resources Canada says the Earthquake Early Warning Network would have given residents a three to 10 second warning for that earthquake.

Boucher says while a three to 10-second warning may not seem like a lot of time, it’s enough time to make a difference.

“Sometimes that few seconds is all we really need to take those few steps of drop, hovering and holding on,” Boucher said. “One thing to consider is that these automatic alerts would be going out to critical infrastructure, who can have automatic infrastructure in place.”

Boucher says a three to 10 second warning would be enough time to divert planes from landing at airports, close bridges and tunnels to traffic and pause surgeries in hospital operating rooms.

“Once the shaking starts these systems are ready.”

Natural Resources Canada says the further you are from the epicentre of the quake, the more warning time you will have.

Ottawa is part of the western Quebec seismic zone. Boucher says the region sees about 120 earthquakes a year, but only 10 or so are felt by people.

Seven seismic sensors have been installed in the Ottawa-Gatineau region so far, with plans for another 20. Natural Resources Canada says the Earthquake Early Warning System sensors have been set up in several locations, including Cumberland, Stittsville, Mississippi Mills, Kenmore and Carsonby. One has been installed in Kingston.

The Earthquake Warning System Network is scheduled to be operational in 2024.

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