Earthquake early warning system gets new federal funding

This is a sample warning, with a countdown of the number of seconds until the strong shaking reaches the user.

A recent article in The New Yorker triggered widespread discussion, and some panic, about the risk of a huge earthquake off the Pacific Northwest coast. While the seismic hazard is real, experts say the article’s tone may have been overly fatalistic, and left out new preparation tools now under construction.

The U.S. Geological Survey on July 30 announced $5 million in funding that will allow four West Coast universities to help transition the prototype ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system, under development since 2005, into a fully functioning aid for the public.

“The impression you got from the article was that the only advance warning you’d ever get would be barking dogs,” said Paul Bodin, a University of Washington research professor of Earth and space sciences. Bodin manages the Pacific Northwest’s earthquake early warning system, a tool set to launch within the next few years.

The new award provides funds to UW, the University of Oregon, the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology to help develop a coast-wide system that would detect the first tremors and alert people, seconds or minutes in advance, of incoming ground shaking. The warnings would be most helpful to inland cities, allowing valuable time for mass transit to come to a safe stop, elevators to descend and people to take cover.

The newly awarded funds were included in President Obama’s budget earlier this year, and Congress subsequently approved funding that was being distributed last week. The award includes $4 million shared between the four universities, as well as $1 million in USGS funds for about 150 new and upgraded sensors that will improve the speed and reliability of the West Coast network.

“This will allow us to continue developing and expanding the country’s first earthquake early warning system,” said John Vidale, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, which includes the UW and University of Oregon. “This is just part of what we need to have a fully operational system, but it is an important step in the right direction.”

The California prototype gave some warning of the Napa earthquake in August 2014. The Pacific Northwest prototype, which currently operates separately, recruited its first test users in February. About two dozen agencies and businesses get alerts delivered to their computers and have begun thinking about how they could integrate earthquake alerts into their operations plans.

When finished, in as soon as three years depending on future funding, the warning system will give Seattle and Portland as much as three or four minutes’ warning for a big offshore quake, and as much as 30 seconds for an earthquake on one of the onshore faults. The warning times depend on the epicenter and depth of the quake, the person’s location and the processing time through the seismic network.

In Washington and Oregon, the federal funding will support:

• An additional staff position to fully integrate the current Pacific Northwest prototype system into the West Coast-wide USGS ShakeAlert system

• Improving collaboration with Canadian seismologists who are monitoring seismicity north of the border

• Gradually expanding the Pacific Northwest test user group, which now includes about 20 regional agencies and businesses

• Extending the regional ShakeAlert magnitude estimates to include the largest Pacific Northwest earthquakes, past magnitude 8, using GPS-based methods

• Speeding up a portion of the older data communication infrastructure to improve warning times

• Upgrading 59 of the current 144 contributing seismic stations, distributed between the two states, to improve speed and reliability

• Planning future station deployments

The federal funding will speed up recent progress on the Pacific Northwest portion of the warning system. The regional network has carried out testing, equipment upgrades and algorithm development to make the warnings faster and more reliable. In the past year, with startup funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the UW-based team has built and installed about a dozen new sensors to improve coverage along the coast.

The University of Oregon recently used state funding to add 15 seismometers to the network, which the university will maintain. The entire network benefits from closely spaced, high-quality sensors in seismically active areas.

UW and its academic partners are also working with a California company to turn the ShakeAlert warnings from a computer-based display into a mobile phone app.

The fully operational network will require about $16.1 million each year to maintain and run. Vidale testified in Congress earlier this year in support of full funding for the earthquake early warning system. The Washington project has received support from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-3rd District, and Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-6th District.

“This award from USGS is an important down payment that provides a crucial step toward developing the type of warning system that has saved lives in Japan,” Vidale said.

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