Potentially huge losses from future earthquakes in Eastern Canada: study

While people in British Columbia are mindful of the fact they could eventually face some of the strongest earthquakes in the world, at least one study warns there’s a lack of awareness of the risk in Eastern Canada.

One report released last summer predicts Montrealers could suffer $45 billion in economic losses if the city were to experience an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale. That’s the estimated strength of a tremor that hit Montreal in 1732.

Maurice Lamontagne, a seismologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, says 300 houses were damaged back then but if a similar earthquake were to occur now it “would cause a lot more damage.”

The study by Zurich-based Swiss Re, a company that helps cover other insurers, noted that Quebec’s Charlevoix region northeast of Quebec City was hit in February 1663 by a 7.0 magnitude quake.

Lamontagne added that in 1929, an earthquake just off the shore of Newfoundland measured 7.2 on the Richter scale.

The tsunami that followed caused most of the devastation and killed 28 people when it hit the shore.

READ MORE: The impact of climate change on seismic activity in Canada

Each year, there are about 450 quakes in Ontario and all points east.

“You don’t get huge earthquakes like they get in Japan, in California,” Lamontagne said. “But we do get what you call moderate earthquakes, so six to seven on the Richter scale are possible.”

A map showing all the earthquakes to strike Canada over a month-long period - Dec. 15, 2016 to Jan. 15, 2017. Natural Resources Canada

A map showing all the earthquakes to strike Canada over a month-long period - Dec. 15, 2016 to Jan. 15, 2017. Natural Resources Canada

Natural Resources Canada

The Swiss Re study, entitled: “Earthquake Risk in Eastern Canada: Mind the Shakes,” says quakes in the East tend to be of lower magnitude than in the West, “but their loss-inflicting potential, particularly in southern Quebec and eastern Ontario, is huge.”

The study points out that three of the biggest cities in Canada – Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec City – are all located in the most earthquake-prone regions of the East.

Two tremors measuring 3.0 and 3.5 were recorded in the Beaupre region on Jan. 2 and Jan. 4 and were felt in Quebec City, about 40 kilometres away.

Pierre Babinsky, a Quebec spokesman for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, says 85 per cent of people it surveyed in 2017 said they didn’t think their home was at risk of being damaged by an earthquake.

“It’s about three per cent of people who have earthquake insurance in the Quebec City area, about four per cent in Montreal,” he said. “And Charlevoix, where they felt a few stronger earthquakes, the average isn’t much higher.”

In B.C., 65 per cent of households have earthquake insurance, according to Swiss Re.

“In the case of earthquake risk in Quebec, most people are unaware – or if they are aware that it’s the second seismic zone in Canada, they don’t believe it will actually affect them,” Babinsky said.

In June 2010, the Parliament Buildings were evacuated following a 5.0 magnitude earthquake near Ottawa. Several buildings are still undergoing major renovations that include seismic reinforcement of foundations and walls.

WATCH: Earthquake simulator aims to shock and educate 

Babinsky said the insurance bureau has been raising awareness by touring cities in Quebec with a simulator, so people can experience an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude.

“Maybe they just want to prepare their home, maybe they want to get some insurance, it’s up to them,” he said, “But we want them to have the information they need to make that decision.”

It would cost an additional $200 a year for earthquake coverage.

Babinsky stressed the insurance industry has the required capital to cover a major quake, which he said would be about nine on the Richter scale in British Columbia and about seven in Quebec.

“Right now, for all the policies that are out there, both residential and commercial, the industry has enough capital to cover any claims that would occur in one of those types of earthquakes,” he said.

“But if we have two successive earthquakes…then obviously we need to make sure that we’re ready as an industry and as a financial sector to go through that.”

READ MORE: No damage reported after 4.1 magnitude earthquake north of Ottawa

Seismologist Lamontagne says there’s a 45 per cent chance that Charlevoix will have an earthquake over the next 50 years that would cause significant damage. For Montreal, it’s about “maybe 10, 15 per cent over the next 50 years.”

“In 1988, there was a 5.9 quake south of Chicoutimi that was felt everywhere in Quebec and in the coming decades we’ll have another one of that order,” he predicted.

Below are some tips from Canadian insurance companies about preparing for an earthquake:

  • Know the safe and dangerous places in your home; plan and practice evacuation.
  • Decide with family members where to meet in case of separation after an earthquake.
  • Talk to relatives about what to do if they’re at home, school, or at work and the quake separates your family.
  • Place heavy objects on lower shelves to prevent them from falling on someone.
  • Secure tall pieces of furniture and shelves, mirrors and furniture on wheels.
  • Make sure chemical products are securely stored.
  • Don’t forget to practise, Drop, Cover, and Hold On.

© 2018 The Canadian Press

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