By in Science

Teachers, Students Absent - But Earthquake Detectors are Headed to School in BC

My husband read a headline to me tonight about the BC government installing earthquake detectors in schools this fall. That was sort of a surprise, considering right now the teachers are on strike and our finance minister has vowed he can't spend any of the province's $225 million surplus on settling the strike.

Safety is an important thing, but don't kids have to actually be in school for an earthquake detector to benefit them? Anyway, do we really have a lot of earthquakes here in BC? I can't remember ever hearing about any. Granted, we only moved here 18 months ago. But you'd think if there'd been a major quake we'd have heard all over Canada....

Well I looked it up, and it turns out that BC's Queen Charlotte Fault is a counterpart to California's San Andreas Fault. There have been a number of significant quakes along this fault, including one in 1949 that was an 8.1! In 2012, there was a 7.7 magnitude tremor . These events seem to rarely cause much in the way of property damage or loss of life, presumably because that part of BC is not heavily inhabited.

The folks in Vancouver do look over their shoulders, though, because one strong earthquake in the wrong place could be absolutely devastating. It's said that sometime in the 1700s there was a magnitude 9 temblor hit the region, wiping out an entire First Nations village with no survivors. The resultant tsunami was felt all the way to Japan.

So while earthquake detectors are probably not a necessity in our little valley, apparently on the coast they can make a significant difference in allowing students to get to a safe place before the worst of the tremor occurs.

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Image credit: San Andreas Fault as seen from the air, by the US Geological Survey (public domain)

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SandraLynn wrote on September 12, 2014, 5:54 AM

The things you learn before 6am. Yikes. Huh. Though I wonder how it will matter if they aren't there for the detectors to matter. Someday, some students will be again :)

Ruby3881 wrote on September 12, 2014, 1:25 PM

I did note that most of the detectors are going into Catholic schools, as this is some sort of pilot project jointly funded by the government the diocese or something. That left me wondering whether the Catholic school teachers are part of our public teachers union. The reason my Katydid has school right now is that her school's teachers aren't members of that union. So the independent school was never affected by this strike :)

BarbRad wrote on September 13, 2014, 3:22 AM

Earthquakes are no joke. I had always treated them lightly until I got caught in a 6.4 that killed two people in our city.

MarshaMusselman wrote on September 13, 2014, 10:53 AM

I was in Ohio one year when a small tremor went through the area. I was sleeping at the time and our whole room was shaking. I thought at first a train was passing by, but there were no trains in the area. It took a bit before we all realized it was an earthquake. It didn't do any damage to the school/church where we were residing, but the town itself had some situations. I don't think there were any causalities, but one shop selling mostly china plates and similar objects, had shelving units crash to the floor. They lost a lot of stock that day. I don't remember what else was affected as that was over twenty years ago.

Ruby3881 wrote on September 14, 2014, 10:58 PM

A 6.4 is definitely significant! We actually lived very close to a fault line in Montreal, but nobody takes it very seriously as the tremors are of very low intensity. Most are in the 2-5 range on the Richter scale, and are pretty easy to miss altogether if you're not paying attention.

Ruby3881 wrote on September 14, 2014, 11:01 PM

I can identify with the experience of wondering if a train or heavy truck was passing by. I was in Montreal during two different tremors that were around 5.3 or so. The first one woke me up, but I didn't realize what had happened until I was told later. The second one felt very much like a train was going by.

GemOfAGirl wrote on September 15, 2014, 2:21 PM

I have an earthquake detector that didn't cost me a dime - my body! If there's a big enough earthquake in my vicinity, I'm going to feel it!

Seriously, though, I'm having trouble figuring out why a school needs an earthquake detector - if there's an earthquake that's large enough to make any difference, people are going to feel it, with or without the detectors. Sure, seismologists are going to want to measure it and study it, but that's not really a function of the schools, unless all the schools are colleges with a geology department that has a research component, right?

Ruby3881 wrote on September 15, 2014, 3:28 PM

Actually, the goal of this project is student safety. These detectors are buried deep under the school, and are meant to sense a large quake before a human would. They would send up a warning that allows students and staff to get to a safer place before the worst part of the tremor hits. It's similar to a smoke detector, which can sense smoke before it might be obvious to people in the space, and afford extra time for a safe escape from the building.

GemOfAGirl wrote on September 15, 2014, 4:27 PM

I was under the impression that, at most, they can only give a few seconds' warning, without enough time to evacuate. Has this changed?

Ruby3881 wrote on September 17, 2014, 6:12 PM

Apparently even a few seconds can improve outcomes significantly during an earthquake, especially in a setting like a school where they can run drills for this sort of thing.