Earthquakes are a constant threat on the West Coast, and having just a few seconds of advance warning that one is about to hit can save lives, serious injury and untold damage to infrastructure and property.
That’s the goal of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) ShakeAlert system, which collects data from a network of seismic sensors to warn that a quake is on the way. A beta of the system has been under development in California for the past year.
On Monday, the USGS announced that ShakeAlert will be extended to Washington and Oregon. It will partner with private and public organizations throughout the three states to develop a production prototype of the system.
Speaking at the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington, USGS Earthquake Early Warning Coordinator Doug Given said this is a turning point.
Until now, the beta test in California had simply measured data from the system but has not given warnings to outside users, Given said.
“Today, we are moving up to turn that beta process into what we’re calling a production prototype, where pilot users can take limited, measured action based on the data from the system,” he said. “The pilot use will pave the way for more and more expanded use in the future as the system continues to be expanded out.
The new production prototype will work with selected early adopters, including Bothell, Wash.,-based RH2 Engineering. Dan Ervin, chairman of RH2’s board, said the company will work with water providers and other municipal utilities to integrate with the ShakeAlert system, automatically cutting power to pumps and closing valves to water stores to preserve them during earthquakes.
The system can give two minutes of advance warning at most, and only a few seconds for places close to the earthquake’s epicenter. But those seconds are often enough for emergency services to take action and for people to take cover.
Experts say even a 20-second alert would provide enough time for affected residents to take cover, for trains and elevators to be stopped safely, and for vital infrastructure systems to be protected.
RH2 and other early adopters will also work with the USGS, universities including the UW, and state and private partners to further develop the system’s technologies, eventually building a massive early warning system that can send out public alerts.
Given said several things currently stand in the way of sending out widespread public alerts, like push notifications to smartphones, for example.
One issue is that the technology to send those alerts out quickly enough doesn’t yet exist, he said. Another is that the project will need more funding to build out the sensors and software required, and to fund more development testing to make sure the system will work when it is needed most.
The USGS predicts that it will cost $38.3 million to develop the system to the point where it can reliably issue public alerts and a further $16.1 million each year to operate and maintain it.
The project already has half of the initial funding needed, but the threat of federal spending cuts, including a sizeable chunk of the USGS budget, could stand in the way of completing that funding.
Given said the current plan is to expand the prototype again early next year, and include limited public alerts at that point.
Former White House science adviser John Holdren noted last year that more than 74 million Americans in 39 states are at risk from the effects of seismic shaking. However, three-quarters of the risk is concentrated on the West Coast, primarily in California, Washington and Oregon, he said.
Californians are familiar with the quake risk, thanks to temblors ranging from San Francisco’s “Big One” in 1906 to the 2014 South Napa earthquake. The Pacific Northwest risk came into the spotlight last July when The New Yorker published a scary article about the potential for a mega-quake in the Cascadia subduction zone.
Earthquake experts say there’s a 7 to 14 percent chance that the Cascadia fault could set off a catastrophic magnitude-8 to 9 quake sometime in the next 50 years.