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Image: Viaduct
A portion of Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct was demolished in 2011 to reduce the road’s vulnerability to earthquake damage. Scientists say the Pacific Northwest could experience a magnitude-9 quake and tsunami like the one that hit Japan in 2011. (Credit: WSDOT)

The omnibus spending bill that was approved by Congress today includes another $8.2 million for a quake-monitoring system that could provide early warning if we’re hit by “the Really Big One” that everyone’s been freaked out about.

Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Derek Kilmer, both D-Wash., had pushed for the additional support and issued a statement applauding the legislative follow-through.

“An updated and operational Earthquake Early Warning System is essential to serve as eyes and ears for folks on the West Coast,” Kilmer said. “A few crucial seconds can make all the difference to help Washingtonians get out of harm’s way if a large quake strikes.”

The omnibus bill was quickly signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Researchers have long been concerned about the potential for the Cascadia Subduction Zone to unleash a magnitude-9.0 quake off the coast of Washington and Oregon. The concern was heightened in July by a scary report in The New Yorker, headlined “The Really Big One.”

The early warning system envisioned for the West Coast would be modeled after a similar system already in operation in Japan. As Kilmer notes, it could signal the approach of a damaging seismic wave a few seconds before it arrives. That would be enough time to put critical systems into safe mode and take cover.

The University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network are part of a consortium that’s developing and testing the system, along with Caltech, Berkeley, the University of Oregon and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The federal government put up $5 million in funding earlier this year, and the Moore Foundation has provided grants as well – but it’s going to take more. The system is expected to cost $38.2 million to build, with annual operation and maintenance costs of $16.1 million.

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