School earthquake assessments set

The Yukon government is preparing detailed studies on whether its schools could withstand a major earthquake. Eight of the territory's schools were identified as being at medium-to-high seismic risk, during seismic screenings conducted in 2010.

The Yukon government is preparing detailed studies on whether its schools could withstand a major earthquake.

Eight of the territory’s schools were identified as being at medium-to-high seismic risk, during seismic screenings conducted in 2010. They are Whitehorse Elementary, Christ the King, Takhini, Wood Street, Kluane, Nelnah Bessie John, St. Elias and Selkirk.

The Education Department has budgeted $130,000 for these assessments. The project will be tendered and completed this winter, said spokesperson Chris Madden.

In 2005, the B.C. government promised to upgrade 750 of its schools to earthquake-proof standards, at a cost of more than $1 billion.

It is too early to say how much it would cost to retrofit or rebuild any Yukon schools until the assessments are completed, said Madden.

The magnitude 7.7 earthquake that shook the coast of B.C. last week made headlines around the globe and raised concerns about earthquake readiness in Western Canada.

And being tucked away from the coast doesn’t necessarily protect Whitehorse or the communities from the risk of a major quake, according to UBC seismology professor Michael Bostock.

Earthquakes happen along fault lines, the worst being subduction faults where one tectonic plate is forced under another, Bostock explained. Whitehorse is close to the intersection of a few major ones – the Queen Charlotte, Duke River and Denali faults – which interact with the Alaska subduction zone.

“It’s a complicated region. Where the Pacific plate is subducting beneath Alaska, it’s thicker than average. Because it’s thicker it’s more resistant to going down. Whitehorse is a scant 300 kilometres or less from the main plate boundary. That main plate boundary is incredibly complicated,” said Bostock.

That produces a complex pattern of seismology, he said, and is responsible for a fair incidence of earthquake activity near southwestern Yukon.

There have been three notable quakes in the past century: a 7.9 magnitude rumbler along the B.C.-Alaska border in 1985, a 7.2 magnitude one near the Yukon-Alaska border in 1979 and the biggest, an estimated 8.0 that rattled Alaska in 1899.

“That’s three in the last century, and nothing since 1979. They’re happening on a 30 to 50 year time frame, it’s likely that we’ll see another one sometime in the near future,” Bostock said.

All Yukon schools practice earthquake and other emergency drills throughout the year, said Madden.

“The safety of students and staff is of primary concern at Yukon schools. Each school has its own emergency preparedness plan that sets out what actions will be taken in different types of emergencies such as power.

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