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Earthquake early warning system: Stirred, not shaken

The U.S. Geological Survey and four partner universities are seeking $16.1 million in federal funding to launch and maintain the West Coast Earthquake Early Warning System.
By Kyle Spurr

The Daily Astorian

Published on April 5, 2016 10:09AM

Last changed on April 6, 2016 4:45PM

Earthquake early warning systems like ShakeAlert work because the warning message can be transmitted almost instantaneously, whereas the shaking waves from the earthquake travel through the shallow layers of the Earth at fast speed.

Erin Burkett/USGS and Jeff Goertzen/Orange County Register

Earthquake early warning systems like ShakeAlert work because the warning message can be transmitted almost instantaneously, whereas the shaking waves from the earthquake travel through the shallow layers of the Earth at fast speed.

Crews work to install the earthquake sensing equipment in California.

U.S. Geological Survey/Department of the Interior

Crews work to install the earthquake sensing equipment in California.

Crews work to install the earthquake sensing equipment in California.

U.S. Geological Survey/Department of the Interior

Crews work to install the earthquake sensing equipment in California.

U.S. Geological Survey/Department of the Interior

U.S. Geological Survey/Department of the Interior

Jeff Merkley

Jeff Merkley

Ron Wyden

Ron Wyden


An earthquake early warning system is being developed for the West Coast to alert the public before the shaking starts.

The U.S. Geological Survey and four partner universities are seeking $16.1 million in federal funding to launch and maintain the West Coast Earthquake Early Warning System. If funded, the system could be up and running within two years.

Oregon lawmakers are showing their support for funding the system. U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley recently penned a letter urging Congress to prioritize the system. The senators explained how the system uses sensors to detect where an earthquake might hit. The $16.1 million funding could buy hundreds of additional sensors.

“This is proven technology that will save lives and reduce the economic impact of an earthquake by far more than the cost to build this warming system,” the senators wrote.


System prototypes


In 2012, the U.S. Geological Survey went live with a test system, ShakeAlert, that has been issuing warnings. The test system relies on data from about 650 sensors on land along the West Coast, with more than 300 sensors in the Pacific Northwest.

The system needs about 1,600 sensor stations to accurately detect an earthquake.

Test users include San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Boeing production facilities in Washington state and Intel production facilities in Oregon.

Doug Given, the earthquake early warning coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey, said the test system has become more reliable, but the additional sensor stations are needed.

At times, the sensor stations misplace an earthquake, miscalculate the shaking effect or simply miss an event.

The fully funded system would function like an Amber Alert, the notification system that uses radio, television, road signs and wireless technology to broadcast information regarding serious child abductions to the public. The system would send alerts to stop trains, shut down factories and get emergency vehicles out of garages.

“We have a lot of smart scientists. They are trying to optimize (the system) to minimize mistakes and maximize speed,” Given said.


History of early warning


Earthquake early warning systems have been used around the world for decades. In the 1960s, Japan began testing a system for its bullet train. Mexico built its first public system in the 1980s. The United States first started investing in 2006.

“Early warning has been around internationally for quite some time,” Given said.

There are no plans for early warning systems on the East Coast. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the West Coast has a 77 percent risk of earthquakes, much higher than the East Coast.

Between the San Andreas Fault and the Cascadia Subduction Zone, Given said, the focus is on the three states along the West Coast.


Pilot projects


As the early warning system is being developed, the Geological Survey and four universities are researching other pilot projects at the local and state levels.

Doug Toomey, professor of geophysics at the University of Oregon, said he is working with the Eugene Water & Electric Board, Oregon’s largest customer-owned utility service, to install sensors on its watershed. Toomey is also forming a partnership with the state Department of Transportation. Once the ShakeAlert system is fully functional and providing alerts, he said, ODOT may be interested in using those alerts to trigger red lights on bridges.

“We are trying to get the federal funding, but also approaching local municipalities and the state of Oregon, as well,” Toomey said. “We have had great support from the state.”

The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network — operated by the University of Oregon and University of Washington — received $670,000 in state funding to purchase high-quality sensors.

“We are heading in the right direction,” Toomey said. “There is good tracking at the local, state and federal level. At the same time, we are only halfway there.”


Offshore sensors


While the immediate focus is on launching the early warning system along the West Coast, scientists are looking ahead at what other technology could be possible.

The early warning system is being built onshore. Scientists would like to see offshore sensor stations, but the cost and technical support is too high.

Offshore sensors are a goal, Toomey said, especially with the Cascadia Subduction Zone that threatens to cause a magnitude 9 earthquake in the Pacific Northwest.

If the Cascadia event is a threatening as believed, Toomey said, it would be wise to invest in the research. Offshore sensors put scientists closer to the threat, he said.

“If you have a threat, and you don’t know the magnitude of it, that makes it more difficult to plan for,” Toomey said. “We would have to go out and spend billions; but if we better learn the system, we are using the public money more wisely.”


More info


Overview: http://www.shakealert.org

How ShakeAlert works: https://www.youtube.com/user/ShakeAlert

Early warning documentary: https://vimeo.com/24997485


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