West Coast Earthquake Warning System Gets Boost with Promise of New Federal Funding, as Alaska Reels from Friday's 7.0

Published : Saturday, December 1, 2018 | 6:04 AM

Congress passed a bipartisan funding bill this week that would keep the development of early earthquake-warning projects on the West Coast on track, just days before a 7.0 magnitude shaker tore up roads and shook buildings violently in Anchorage, Alaska.

The early warning system is patterned after ShakeAlert, which started around 2007 as a demonstration project by Caltech and U.S. Geological Survey scientists in Pasadena, and has since evolved into a fully deployable early-warning system, though still limited in coverage.

That research produced its first real-life early results on August 28 this year when a prototype version alerted scientists to a small earthquake near La Verne seconds before it arrived in Pasadena.

The bill that would reauthorize the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program for the first time since 2004 is now awaiting President Trump’s signature.

Once signed, the bill should supply about $112 million for earthquake safety programs nationwide, greatly benefiting the development of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, or PNSN, which spun off from ShakeAlert.

ShakeAlert consists of a network of sensors near faults that transmit signals to data-processing centers when shaking occurs. These data-processing centers use algorithms to rapidly determine the earthquake’s location, magnitude, and the fault rupture length – determining the intensity of an earthquake and sending out an alert that can provide seconds or even minutes of warning.

The ShakeAlert system does not predict earthquakes before they happen. Rather, it transmits a heads-up that an earthquake is happening – warnings that can arrive ahead of the seismic waves generated in the quake, and potentially providing crucial time to allow individuals to take cover and for infrastructure to prepare for the quake.

ShakeAlert has been in development since 2006. In 2011, Caltech, along with UC Berkeley and the University of Washington received $6 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for the research and development of the system. In 2015, the USGS announced approximately $4 million in awards to Caltech, UC Berkeley, the University of Washington, and the University of Oregon for ShakeAlert’s expansion and improvement.

Currently, ShakeAlert’s infrastructures consist of the California Integrated Seismic Network (400 ground-motion sensors operated by Caltech in partnership with UC Berkeley, the USGS, and the State of California), and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (a similar regional network operated by the USGS, University of Washington, and the University of Oregon).

Over the past few years, ShakeAlert has detected thousands of earthquakes, including two that caused damage. It began sending alerts within four seconds of the beginning of the magnitude 5.1 La Habra earthquake in 2014 and gave users in Berkeley five seconds of warning before seismological waves arrived during the magnitude 6.0 South Napa earthquake, also in 2014.

Beta-test users received these alerts as a pop-up on their computers; the pop-up displayed a map of the affected region as well as the amount of time until shaking would begin, the estimated magnitude of the quake, and other data. Future iterations include sending those alerts to smartphones, allowing individual users to react positively seconds or minutes before the more damaging earthquake waves arrive.

In a press conference in Pasadena in October, Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum announced a new stage in the development of Shake Alert.

“Partner institutions can now use ShakeAlert to automatically slow trains; warn industrial sites to shut off gas lines; and warn personnel to drop, cover, and hold on,” Rosenbaum said.

At the same event, Doug Given, earthquake early warning coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), announced Shake Alert has made a large transition from a “production prototype in pilot mode to an open-for-business operational mode.”

“Now, the system is not yet finished, it’s not yet complete; there is a lot of work to be done. However, there is a lot of capability in the system as it exists today to the point that it can definitely be used,” Given said then.

In the press conference were U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff and Congresswoman Judy Chu, both of whom represent Pasadena in Congress.

Also present at that press conference was Pasadena resident Dr. Lucy Jones, known also as the “Earthquake Lady,” who founded the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society after more than three decades of public service as a seismologist with the USGS. The Center works with scientists and decision-makers to help increase the ability of communities to adapt to the dynamic changes in the surrounding world.

To learn more about ShakeAlert and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, visit www.shakealert.org.

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