As Hurricane Sandy closed in on the East Coast of the United States in late October, the west coast of Turtle Island was shaken and stirred by an earthquake off Haida Gwaii that sent out a series of small tsunamis heading toward Hawaii.
The 7.7-magnitude quake off British Columbia generated a tsunami warning that forced the evacuation of Hawaiians in low-lying islands. The tremors were felt all the way to Edmonton, CTV News reported.
It was Canada’s biggest quake since 1949, when an 8.1-magnitude hit off the B.C. coast on the Queen Charlotte Fault, where the Pacific and North American plates meet underwater along Haida Gwaii’s west coast, CBC News said. The interaction of the two plates is akin to what happens on the San Andreas Fault farther south in California, earth scientist Brent Ward of Simon Fraser University told CBC News. The “plates slide horizontally across each other in a strike-slip action,” the network said.
Around the time the tsunami warning was lifted, a 6.3 aftershock jolted Haida Gwaii, though no significant damage was reported and no tsunami warnings were issued for that second quake. CBC News reported that it hit about 40 miles southwest of Sandspit at 12 miles’ depth, just before noon on Sunday October 29.
The quake and tsunami possibility raised questions about the supertanker terminal being proposed for Kitimat, B.C., which is where Enbridge Corp.’s Northern Gateway pipeline would go. In hearings two weeks ago, Enbridge admitted that it would be impossible to build a pipeline completely devoid of risks, according to the Canadian Press.
The Canadian government itself lists the British Columbia coast as one of the country’s most earthquake-prone zones. It’s part of the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire, and more than 100 magnitude-5 or higher earthquakes have occurred there over the past 70 years, Natural Resources Canada says on its website. The site also explains the movement of the tectonic plates.
“The plates can either slide past one another, or they can collide, or they can diverge (or move apart),” Natural Resources Canada says. “The west coast of Canada is one of the few areas in the world where all three of these types of plate movements take place, resulting in significant earthquake activity."
Sending tankers through narrow, winding channels in the region’s typical bad weather, over a fault line to boot? What could go wrong?
Traditional knowledge brings plenty of ideas on that. Farther south in British Columbia—Haida Gwaii is off the north-central coast—elders on the west coast of Vancouver Island have handed down tales of the quake of 1700, as Huu-ay-Aht First Nation Hereditary Chief Tom Happynook told Postmedia News earlier this year. The quake generated a tsunami that washed away an entire village and tossed canoes up into trees.
The village of Anacla is already moving its houses up off the beach, and rebuilt its meetinghouse farther up the hill some time ago, Postmedia News reported. Saturday night’s temblor, which struck at 8:04 p.m. Pacific Time, was the largest since an 8.1-magnitude in 1949 in Canada, in a similar area.
And as Yahoo! News’s The Daily Brew points out, in August two studies pointed toward an increased possibility that Canada’s Pacific coast could get a major earthquake within the next 50 years. Postmedia News reported that scientists in the U.S. and Canada had analyzed earthquakes in the Cascadia region as far back as 8,000 B.C. and concluded that in that border area between British Columbia and Washington State there could be enough power to cause the same type of catastrophe that struck Japan in March 2011. They urged more earthquake preparedness.
"Over the past 10,000 years, there have been 19 earthquakes that extended along most of the margin, stretching from southern Vancouver Island to the Oregon-California border," a co-author of one of the studies, Chris Goldfinger, told Postmedia News at the time. "These would typically be of a magnitude from about 8.7 to 9.2—really huge earthquakes."
Back in Haida Gwaii, pipeline observers are taking note. “The current Northern Gateway tanker routes would bring oil tankers near the area where the earthquake and small tsunami waves hit off the B.C. coast,” reported the Vancouver Observer. Even before this earthquake, a master mariner writing in the Vancouver Observer had reservations.
"The Enbridge tanker transport proposal, in its current form, represents too great a risk to a remote and still pristine area of BC’s Central Coast, a region of this coast that is exposed to the most severe winter weather conditions," wrote Mal Walsh, a master mariner from British Columbia with more than 40 years experience in international oil exploration and shipping, in July.