Terri-Jane Yuzda

Earthquakes and Tsunamis:
The Havoc They Wreak
And How We Protect Ourselves

Freelance Writer

Those attending the 2003 Honorary were treated to a vivid history of earthquakes and tsunamis on the West Coast, filled with archival photos, eyewitness accounts and film footage.

Dr. Garry Rogers, a research scientist at the Geological Survey of Canada’s office in Sidney, B.C., explored the causes behind some of Western Canada’s most damaging quakes — including the mysterious killer that wiped out an Aboriginal village in the 1700s on Vancouver Island and Canada’s largest recorded earthquake, measuring 8.1, that shook the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1949.

Dr. Bernard, director of the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, Washington, followed by discussing the natural forces that lead to tsunamis.

Japanese for “harbour wave,” the word “tsunami” refers to a series of waves that can build up in height — sometimes up to 30 metres — crossing the ocean to wreak havoc on coastal communities. They are triggered by large disturbances of the sea surface, usually by earthquakes or landslides.

“They travel about the speed of a jet in the open ocean,” said Dr. Bernard. “And as they come ashore, the energy is confined to a smaller volume of water, pushing up a tidal wave. You can have huge waves hitting shorelines thousands of miles away from each other. A tsunami keeps on destroying as long as the energy propagates.”

According to Dr. Rogers and Dr. Bernard, earthquakes and tsunamis are bad news-good news stories: They have the power to inflict devastating destruction on people and communities. But thanks to advances in science and engineering, we’re learning how to build more earthquake-resistant structures and how to better detect and anticipate tsunamis.

“If engineers know and understand the ground-shaking forces, they can design buildings that are very resistant.” said Dr. Rogers, who is a member of the Canadian National Committee on Earthquake Engineering. “Most of the structures we’re building today are going to resist the next earthquakes.”

Dr. Bernard echoed the importance of preparing for extreme natural events.

Over the last seven years, the U.S. oceanographer has been actively involved in developing a tsunami hazards identification program in California. The program uses signage to identify hazard zones on beaches and coastlines and provide vacuation routes to safe areas, usually high ground.

“This program will increase our ability to withstand the next tsunamis. This is an unusual program in that it has started not after a major catastrophe — but before,” said Dr. Bernard.

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