Sensors buy time in event Vancouver Island is hit by tsunami


Vancouver Island communities most vulnerable to tsunamis, such as Ucluelet, Tofino and Port Alberni, should get crucial warnings of a wave’s approach thanks to a screen of ocean-floor sensors developed at the University of Victoria.

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UVic’s Ocean Networks Canada has established a network of motion sensors on the ocean bottom around the Island, including the subduction zone off the west coast, a birthing zone for earthquakes and tsunamis.

“We have a network of underwater sensors there, a collection of motion sensors and position sensors monitoring the geo-dynamics,” Ocean Networks Canada physical oceanographer Richard Dewey said in a telephone interview. “They are ready to detect any signs of shaking or movement that would give us a warning.”

The warnings could givea crucial 20 minutes for west coast residents to reach high ground. The system would allow for even longer warnings for communities around the Salish Sea, the Lower Mainland or the east coast of the Island where any tsunami would have to travel around land forms and move further from the subduction zone.

Located about 100 kilometres off the west coast, the subduction zone is the line where the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate burrows its way underneath the North American plate as the various plates of Earth’s surface shift.

If the Juan de Fuca plate moves suddenly, the result is an earthquake. At the same time, the movement can push the height of the ocean floor upwards. Any shifting of the ocean bottom can move an enormous volume of water and create a tsunami.

This month, the federal government awarded Ocean Networks Canada $7.2 million in scientific funding. The money is part of the government’s $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan announced in 2016 to create a recognized marine safety system to protect marine environments while allowing economic activity.

Besides its sensors on the ocean floor, another element of Ocean Network Canada ’s research is special radar stations — at Tofino, Prince Rupert and Campbell River — that monitor movement of the ocean surface.

The work can be invaluable for search-and-rescue operations trying to determine where a boat without power or a person washed overboard might drift.

Ocean Networks Canada will also use the money to fund the operation of its 20 hydrophones, underwater microphones keeping track of the ocean noise levels around the clock.

Kate Moran, president of Ocean Networks Canada, said computer researchers have even developed ways to single out the sounds of individual whale species from all the ocean noise.

For researchers studying marine mammals, the presence and movements of the animals can be tracked and monitored. The federal government is keenly interested in such data because it has already committed itself to protecting marine mammals, such as killer whales.

The hydrophone and ocean-noise work is also being used by the Port of Vancouver to monitor the sounds of ships and other vessels, Moran said.

It is believed if the port and shipping companies can reduce ocean-noise levels, it will be another step to better protecting the marine environment, she said.

Moran said the recent award of federal money will be leveraged to gain additional financial support from other agencies, enterprises and endeavours, such as the Port of Vancouver’s noise-reduction effort.

“Everything you put into the ocean is expensive,” she said. “So it’s important for everything we have to be multi-use.

“So, in the end, we can serve a whole family of users, all of them buying into the data we produce for different reasons.”

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