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ShakeAlert
The ShakeAlert earthquake warning system is designed to give schools, utilities and other facilities advance alerts about serious seismic shocks. (USGS Photoillustration)

The University of Washington and six other research institutions will benefit from $4.9 million in funding from the U.S. Geological Survey for the ShakeAlert earthquake warning system, which could eventually provide precious seconds of advance notice that a seismic shock is coming.

The grant funds a fresh set of two-year cooperative agreements with UW as well as Central Washington University, the University of Oregon, Caltech, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Nevada at Reno and the Colorado-based UNAVCO research consortium.

The USGS and its partners have been working on a sensor network and computer software that can take advantage of the fact that earthquakes generate two types of seismic waves. P-waves travel through the ground more quickly. S-waves travel more slowly, but are more devastating.

Depending on the character of the terrain and the distance from the quake’s epicenter, sensors can sound a warning about the P-waves seconds or perhaps even more than a minute before the S-waves arrive. That would provide enough time for utilities to shut off gas mains, rail companies to brake their trains to a stop, and for the rest of us to take shelter and “duck, cover and hold.”

Japan has already set up an effective warning system that monitors seismic waves, and U.S. researchers hope to do the same with ShakeAlert. The system went into beta testing in California last year, and was extended to Washington and Oregon just this spring.

The research funding is part of a $10.2 million funding package that Congress approved for ShakeAlert earlier this year through the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program, according to a USGS news release. The money should boost efforts to develop better software and thoroughly test the system, the USGS said.

In addition to the $4.9 million in grants, the USGS has purchased about $1 million in new sensor equipment to expand and improve the ShakeAlert system. The rest of the money will help fund internal work on the project at the USGS.

Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Derek Kilmer, both Washington state Democrats, have been among ShakeAlert’s most vocal proponents – in part because seismologists say the Pacific Northwest’s seismic environment has the potential to generate a devastating magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami (nicknamed “the Really Big One”)

In May, the Trump administration’s preliminary budget blueprint called for eliminating USGS funding for ShakeAlert in the coming fiscal year, which sparked an outcry in Congress.

The USGS has estimated that it will cost $38.3 million in capital investment to complete the ShakeAlert system on the West Coast to the point of issuing public alerts, and $16.1 million each year to operate and maintain it.

Not all of that money would have to come from the federal government. The state of California recently committed $10 million to the California Office of Emergency Services to enhance the statewide build-out of the California Earthquake Early Warning system. The state of Oregon also contributed about $1 million in funding to enhance the system in Oregon.

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