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Image: ShakeAlert earthquake simulation
A simulation shows the kind of alert that would be generated by an 8.0 quake. (PNSN via YouTube)

The Pacific Northwest mega-quake known as “the Really Big One” may not be televised, but a White House summit focusing on earthquake preparedness will be streamed online next Tuesday.

The White House says new commitments to adopt an earthquake early-warning system for the United States will be announced at its Earthquake Resilience Summit, due to be live-streamed starting at 9:30 a.m. PT Tuesday.

Researchers from the University of Washington are heavily involved in developing such a system through the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, or PNSN – and in a series of tweets, PNSN said the system could go public as early as this year.

“A year depends on it being ready,” UW seismologist John Vidale, the network’s director, told GeekWire today. It’s not yet ready for prime time, but PNSN has shared a video showing how the ShakeAlert system could provide 28 seconds’ worth of advance warning about a magnitude-8 quake off the coast of Oregon.

Early-warning systems take advantage of the fact that the less damaging waves from a seismic shock, known as P-waves, move more quickly through the earth than the stronger waves. If the P-waves can be quickly and accurately analyzed, that provides precious seconds during which emergency officials could turn off gas lines, stop elevators, slow down trains and protect other vulnerable infrastructure systems.

That’s especially important for quake-prone California – and also for the Pacific Northwest, where the Cascadia fault has the potential to set off a magnitude-9 quake and a tsunami.

Experts have known about the Cascadia mega-quake scenario for decades, but the potential consequences came into the spotlight big time last summer when The New Yorker published an article titled “The Really Big One.”

The report quoted FEMA official Kenneth Murphy as saying “our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” That kind of talk got the attention of readers across the country, and the White House’s attention as well.

The Seattle Times reports that next week’s summit was inspired in large part by the New Yorker article.

Last month, Congress approved spending $8.2 million on the effort to develop an earthquake early-warning system that would be modeled after a similar system in Japan. Millions of dollars already have gone into the effort, but more will be needed: Full implementation is expected to cost $38.2 million, with the annual costs of operation and maintenance estimated at $16.1 million.

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