Canada earthquake risk 85 years after the Grand Banks earthquake and tsunami

November 18 marked the 85th anniversary of one of the largest and deadliest earthquakes in Canadian history, one that reiterates the importance of managing all drivers of earthquake risk effectively in the region.

The 1929 Grand Banks earthquake and tsunami was a magnitude 7.2 event that occurred just after 5:00 p.m. NST approximately 155 miles south of Newfoundland and was felt as a far away as New York City and Montreal. The earthquake caused limited damage on land and water, including minor landslides, but triggered a significant tsunami that was recorded as far south as South Carolina and as far east as Portugal.

Sea levels near the Newfoundland coast rose between 6 and 21 feet, with higher amounts recorded locally through narrow bays and inlets, and the tsunami claimed 28 lives. Had this event occurred near a more populated region, such British Columbia or Québec, the impacts could have been much worse.

Figure 1: A home in Newfoundland gets dragged out of a nearby cove following the 1929 Grand Banks earthquake and tsunami. Source: Natural Resources Canada

An event like this shows just how complex the Canadian earthquake risk landscape can be and how important it is to keep that view of risk as up-to-date and accurate as possible. On average, Canada experiences approximately 4,000 earthquakes each year. Most are small, but some can be large, particularly along the west coast near Vancouver and Victoria. There, in what is known as the Cascadia Subduction Zone, the Juan de Fuca plate is sliding underneath North America, causing subduction earthquakes, which tend to be less frequent but more severe than other Canadian seismic sources.

RMS has been modeling Canadian earthquake risk since 1991, with the last model update in 2009. The model inherently or explicitly includes the impacts of nearly all drivers of earthquake damage in that part of the world, from ground shaking, landslides, and liquefaction to fire following.

In building, updating, and validating the model over the years, RMS has collaborated with leading Canadian researchers and engineers, including representatives from what is now known as Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). RMS also maintains strong relationships with key insurance organizations and regulatory bodies, such as the Office of Superintendent of Financial Institutions and the Insurance Bureau of Canada, to play a key role in influencing guidelines and practices throughout the Canadian earthquake market.

The next update to the RMS Canada Earthquake Model is targeted for 2016 as part of a larger RMS North America Earthquake Models update. Among other enhancements, the model will incorporate the latest seismic hazard data (2015), internal research by the RMS seismic hazard development team, and introduce a probabilistic earthquake-induced tsunami model that will include losses from inundation along impacted coastlines.

Together, these updates will reflect the latest view of earthquake hazard in Canada, enabling the market to price and underwrite policies more accurately, and manage earthquake portfolio aggregations more effectively.

Meteorologist and Manager, Model Product Strategy, RMS
Jeff Waters is a meteorologist who specializes in tropical meteorology, climatology, and general atmospheric science. At RMS, Jeff is responsible for guiding the insurance market’s understanding and usage of RMS models including the North American hurricane, severe convective storm, earthquake, winter storm, and terrorism models. In his role he assists the development of RMS model release communications and strategies, and regularly interacts with rating agencies and regulators around RMS model releases, updates, and general model best practices. Jeff is a member of the American Meteorological Society, the International Society of Catastrophe Managers, and the U.S. Reinsurance Under 40s Group, and has co-authored articles for the Journal of Climate. Jeff holds a BS in geography and meteorology from Ohio University and an MS in meteorology from Penn State University. His academic achievements have been recognized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the American Meteorological Society.

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