Tsunami Mapping: Northwest Vancouver Island

By Shaun Koopman and Gabriel Peters

Geological studies, historical records from Japan, and oral history from Indigenous communities along the west coast of North America show that the last large local tsunami was generated by a strong Cascadia earthquake which occurred on January 26, 1700. The scientific study of tsunamis on the west coast of Vancouver Island began in earnest in the 1980s; however, the history of tsunamis and the impacts of those tsunamis is much longer, represented in several ways. The Nuu-chah-nulth story describes mountain dwarves and the foot-in-drum legend: the dwarves invited a person to dance around their drum; the person accidentally kicked the drum and got earthquake-foot, said the Nuu-chah-nulth people, and after that, every step he took caused an earthquake. The land shook and the ocean flooded in – people didn’t even have time to wake up and get into their canoes. Everything then drifted away; everything was lost and gone. Along with other references, these accounts highlight the knowledge and teachings that exist with regards to earthquakes and tsunamis on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Mapping local knowledge to understand tsunami risks

The Strathcona Regional District in partnership with the Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k:tles7et’h’ First Nations and Nuchatlaht First Nation are currently undertaking a tsunami modelling of the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, from Muchalaht Inlet to Cape Scott Provincial Park (Figure 1). Our goal is to better understand tsunami risks on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island through tsunami models and the completion of a risk assessment with the integration of community experience and indigenous knowledge. This project aligns with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction by using traditional, Indigenous and local knowledge as well as western science in the risk assessment. Knowledge was gathered from communities in the Mount Waddington and Strathcona Regional Districts, as well as many historic community locations, sacred sites, fishing and hunting areas, shellfish harvesting sites, and old village sites.

  • Coal Harbour
  • Ehattesaht/Chinehkint First Nation
  • Esperanza
  • Holberg
  • Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k:tles7et’h’ First Nation
  • Kyuquot
  • Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation
  • Nuchatlaht First Nation
  • Quatsino
  • Quatsino First Nation
  • Village of Gold River
  • Village of Port Alice
  • Village of Tahsis
  • Village of Zeballos
  • Winter Harbour

The multiple benefits of engagement

Part of this project included surveying residents in the study area’s communities in order to build community resilience by:

  • The sharing of experiences and knowledge we hope to help reduce tsunami risk in communities.
  • Assessing community evacuation and shelter-in-place preparedness levels.
  • Helping the community understand where they can access emergency programs.

The survey consisted of 12 yes/no questions and three open-ended questions to encourage storytelling from participants,acknowledging that public preparedness is so much more than a kit with 72 hours of water, a flashlight, canned food, and duct tape. Public preparedness surveys that ask “on a scale of 1 to 5, how prepared do you think you are” are not a good measure of community preparedness; rather, they are a measure of how prepared people think they are. For example, if a resident knows of 30 actions they can take to prepare for a tsunami, but they have only completed 15 of them, they may rate themselves as “not prepared.” Another resident, who only knows about four actions, but has taken three of them, may rate themselves as “very” prepared. By using primarily yes/no questions and questions that promoted storytelling, this project not only provided data to guide future emergency planning, but it also educated the residents about specific actions that they can take to be better prepared for a tsunami.

Surveys were promoted through a media release, neighbourhood mail outs, email, and community-specific social media sites. Responses could be mailed in or submitted electronically; 275 responses were received by Strathcona Regional District’s Protective Services Coordinator. Participants that provided contact information were contacted and personally thanked for their participation. This was also an opportunity to inform each respondent of suggestions to improve personal preparedness, such as telling them about their community’s phone mass notification system for tsunami alerts or sending them more information about how to obtain their amateur radio certification.

‘Be prepared for the unexpected’ sign at Cape Scott
Image by Flickr user Alessandro (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Findings and recommendations: A quantitative discussion

Emergency supplies

  • The rate of respondents having two weeks worth of emergency supplies was relatively high amongst all communities, with the lowest being 50% and the highest being 78%. Figure 1 provides a breakdown of responses by community.

Figure 1: Total respondents per community

This indicates an awareness that their communities are highly vulnerable from being cut off from the outside world for a long period of time following a disaster. However, the portability of these supplies (such as in a backpack or suitcase with wheels) differed and was generally split 60/40 amongst all communities except for Quatsino, which had the highest score of 83% of responses indicating their supplies were mobile. This is of particular concern in communities such as Tahsis, Zeballos and Ka:’yu;’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ First Nations where a large portion of the population resides within the tsunami inundation zone. It is important that all residents are encouraged to have their emergency supplies in an easily accessible place and able to be mobilized quickly to support an evacuation.

Meeting points

  • Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k:tles7et’h’ First Nation, Tahsis and Zeballos have sea-cans stocked with post-earthquake group lodging supplies to support essential survival needs. Overall, 58% of participants indicated that they knew where the community’s tsunami meeting point(s) were. In the three communities that have sea-cans at their tsunami muster sites, this response was as high as 86%. This speaks to the importance of having a distinguishing identifier or sign at community tsunami assembly areas. While residents may possess a high level of awareness that the sea-cans are tsunami assembly areas, the survey raised the discussion that tourists and visitors likely do not possess the same degree of awareness, so more obvious signage should be placed in these areas.

Sea-cans at tsunami muster points in the Village of Tahsis
Images used with permission from Shaun Koopman

Notifications and alerts

  • On behalf of Emergency Management British Columbia, the Canadian Coast Guard issues tsunami messages directly to vessel traffic and remote coastal communities on Marine Channel 16. All the communities in the study area are coastal communities, so it was surprising to see that such a high level of respondents were unaware of the role of the Canadian Coast Guard during a tsunami. This represents an opportunity for the Canadian Coast Guard and Local Authorities to work together to ensure more residents are aware of this notification method.

Back-up communications

  • Even though many of the communities involved in the survey are rural and remote, only 10% of respondents indicated they were certified ham radio operators or own satellite communication devices such as a Spot-X or In Reach. After a disaster, a key mode of communication – one not reliant on infrastructure vulnerable to tsunami waves and ground shaking – is amateur “ham” radio. Untethered from wires and cables, operators can share information by voice and data (email). In the author’s experience,the Strathcona Regional District has had low participation and high dropout rates when we run ham radio certification courses in these types of communities. The course information is very much theory-based, and many participants have cited the technical course content as overwhelming to learn and difficult to comprehend. Amateur Radio Certification is governed by the Government of Canada through Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and changes to the course content to eliminate these barriers would have to come at that level. The authors propose that communities across the nation advocate for the Government of Canada to consider restructuring this certification’s curriculum.
  • Only 30% of study participants expressed interest in learning more about obtaining their amateur radio certification. The lack of support and interest in developing redundant communication options could be indicative of a common mindset across rural communities, which is “we can’t rely on the government during regular times; why would we rely on them after a disaster?” Residents of these rural communities are often connected, cohesive, and resourceful, through developing their own informal support networks. Regarding communicating with the outside world after a tsunami, the time and effort required to obtain an amateur radio certification combined with the cost of either radio or satellite communication devices may not be perceived as worthwhile investments when residents are used to solving their problems at a community level anyways.

Looking out over the water in Zeballos
Image by Flickr user Province of British Columbia (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Findings and recommendations: A qualitative discussion

Every community involved in the study expressed an interest in greater risk communication, evacuation drills and public education. When the mapping is finalized and the inundation areas are known, communities could start participating in ‘High Ground Hikes,’ which are a community-led tsunami evacuation event. These hikes help raise awareness about tsunami risks in coastal communities and offer residents an opportunity to practice using their designated tsunami evacuation routes.

“We experienced a tsunami warning a while back that was a false alarm, but better safe than sorry. Response on the whole by staff was good but felt a sense of panic which might be resolved with more practice. Perhaps an annual full alert drill would be helpful.”

– Participant

The qualitative survey section also allowed respondents to provide their insights on past tsunami events they’ve experienced firsthand. All respondents that mentioned past experiences were contacted to ask if they would be willing to share more details about their experience over a phone call. Through this method,  stories were related through direct past tsunami experiences or passed down from elder family members. Since the last major tsunami to hit Vancouver Island was in 1964, time is of the essence to track down and document these firsthand tsunami experiences.

“My husband lived in Port Alice in 1964 when the tsunami hit the inlet. An abundance of water building up at the head of the inlet caused logbooms to break loose. Damage to the pulp mill near water level closer to the head of the inlet.”

– Participant


This survey provided a valuable opportunity to educate residents about earthquake and tsunami preparedness and collect input from community members. The authors recently discovered that two participants who provided their input passed away shortly after discussing their past tsunami experiences. Without this study, their stories may have been lost. It is also deeply saddening to think of all the untold stories that have been lost since the last tsunami in BC was 57 years ago. Had funding been available sooner, this may not have been the case.

It is incredible that we are only just now discovering the effects of a tsunami wave on half of the west coast of Vancouver Island. If ‘understanding risk’ is the crucial foundation that drives emergency planning – what does that say for where our discipline is maturity-wise? With the compounding threats from climate change, political instability, nuclear war, and rising inequality, it bears the question of whether our discipline is maturing fast enough to adequately reduce disaster risk.



Shaun Koopman

For the past six years Shaun has been blessed to work as the Protective Services Coordinator following the completion of his Masters in Disaster Management. He was drawn into this world through his family ties in Haiti following their devastating earthquake in 2010. When he’s not with his wife and two dogs at dog agility, you can find him surfing, yogaing, hiking or headbanging to California groove metal.

Gabriel Peters

Gabriel Peters graduated from the University of Winnipeg with a Bachelor of Arts in Geography. He is passionate about disaster management and focused his degree around resilience and natural hazards. His vigor for life is fueled by the natural world, his relationships with friends and family, and his desire to engage people in their deepest interests.