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Karl Hagel and Pat McChesney, field engineers with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network team at the University of Washington, install earthquake monitoring equipment on the slopes of Mount St. Helens, with Mount Hood visible in the distance. (UW / PNSN Photo / Marc Biundo)

The U.S. Geological Survey is setting aside $10.4 million over the next two years to boost the ShakeAlert earthquake early-warning system in the Pacific Northwest.

About $7.3 million of the funding, which is part of a broader ShakeAlert expansion program announced today, will go to the University of Washington.

Funds will be used to upgrade the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, or PNSN, which monitors earthquake activity in Washington and Oregon.

“This investment in PNSN represents a major increase in federal support for earthquake monitoring in the Cascadia region,” UW seismologist Harold Tobin, the network’s director, said in a news release. “At the end of the two years of funding we anticipate having essentially doubled the number of seismic stations across our whole region that contribute to real-time earthquake early warning.”

Tobin said the network’s expansion “would allow for full public alerts of any potentially damaging earthquakes, across our entire region of Washington and Oregon, by the end of the two-year period.”

ShakeAlert’s system is modeled after similar systems in Japan, which take advantage of the fact that quakes 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 up to a minute or more before the S-waves arrive. That would provide enough time for utilities to shut off gas mains, transit companies to bring their trains to a halt, physicians to stop their surgeries, and the rest of us to take shelter and “duck, cover and hold.”

Previous rounds of funding supported a pilot program for early adopters, including Microsoft, Sound Transit and Seattle-area hospitals. Over the past two years, PNSN, USGS and their partners have been fine-tuning a system aimed at triggering loss-reduction measures at critical facilities — for example, turning off water valves in public utility districts.

The new round sets aside $5.4 million in USGS funding for PNSN this year — with UW receiving $3.75 million in direct support, and another $1.66 million going to support the PNSN team at the University of Oregon. An additional $5 million in second-year funding is contingent on approval by Congress, and will be shared in similar proportions.

Fresh funding will allow for the installation of 104 new seismic stations in Washington state and 44 stations in Oregon over the two-year period. It also will support the development of more sophisticated quake detection methods, and the expansion of the pilot program to schools, businesses, community agencies and critical infrastructure facilities.

Such an expansion should open the way for an app-based alert system open to the general public, like the system launched in January for the Los Angeles area.

The work being done on GPS-based seismic detection methods is being shared with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA with the aim of beefing up tsunami detection methods. UW is working with Central Washington University to receive near-real-time GPS data from across Washington and Oregon that will be integrated into future releases of ShakeAlert.

This map locates the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network’s ShakeAlert stations as of spring 2019. The new funding will roughly double the number of stations in Washington and Oregon. (UW / Google Earth Map)

The regional ShakeAlert effort began in 2011, when UW joined with the University of California at Berkeley and Caltech as a primary ShakeAlert center for a West Coast earthquake warning system. Each university received $2 million in seed funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to start turning the ShakeAlert research project into an operational system.

Additional support for PNSN operations comes from the U.S. Department of Energy and the states of Washington and Oregon. Washington state’s current biennial budget allocates $1.24 million over two years for ShakeAlert network enhancements. The state of Oregon, meanwhile, has contributed about $1 million.

Today’s announcement comes after Congress approved $21.1 million in funding to the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program for ShakeAlert. Thanks to that approval, USGS is awarding more than $12.5 million in first-year funding to seven universities and a university-governed nonprofit group. USGS has also purchased about $1.5 million in new sensor equipment for ShakeAlert expansion.

In addition to UW, CWU and the University of Oregon, the recipients include Caltech, Berkeley, the University of Nevada at Reno, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (also known as ETH Zurich) and the UNAVCO nonprofit consortium.

This chart shows how USGS funding to the University of Washington for the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system has grown from tens of thousands per year in 2012 to the newly announced two-year, $7.3 million agreement starting in 2019. (UW / PNSN Graphic via Tableau)
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