Earthquake early warning system gets a $4 million boost from USGS

A demo of the ShakeAlert warning system prototype, in action.

A demo of the ShakeAlert warning system prototype, in action.

What if there were a way to warn people right before a big earthquake hits? Earthquake early warning system technology is already serious stuff in Japan, and a system in development for the U.S. just got some serious funding.

The U.S. Geological Survey today announced that it has awarded about $4 million this week to four universities–California Institute of Technology, University of California, Berkeley, University of Washington and University of Oregon–to try and make the "ShakeAlert" earthquake early warning system real.

The ShakeAlert system is similar to early warning systems widely used in Japan for seismic activity and tsunami, as I reported previously for this blog.

From the USGS press release:

A functioning early warning system can give people a precious few seconds to stop what they are doing and take precautions before the severe shaking waves from an earthquake arrive.

The USGS has additionally spent about $1 million to purchase new sensor equipment for the EEW system. These efforts are possible because of a $5 million increase to the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program for EEW approved by Congress earlier this year.

Under the new cooperative agreements, the USGS and its four university partners will collaborate to improve the ShakeAlert EEW system across the west coast of the United States, and will continue to coordinate across regional centers in southern California, northern California, and the Pacific Northwest. The USGS and its university partners will continue development of scientific algorithms to rapidly detect potentially damaging earthquakes, more thoroughly test the system, and improve its performance. In addition, they will upgrade and construct approximately 150 seismic sensors to improve the speed and reliability of the warnings. They will also develop user training and education, and add additional test users. There are currently 70 organizations that are test users, from sectors such as utilities and transportation, emergency management, state and city governments, and industry.

In 2006 the USGS began funding multi-institutional, collaborative research to start the process of testing earthquake early warning algorithms on real-time seismic networks within the USGS Advanced National Seismic Network. Today, the ShakeAlert demonstration EEW system is issuing alerts to the group of test users across the U.S. west coast in California, Oregon and Washington. In California, this is a joint effort, where state legislation was passed directing the California Office of Emergency Services and USGS to partner on development of an early warning system. The new awards will expand the number of end users and is another step to improve the speed and reliability of ShakeAlert.  

During the August 2014 magnitude-6.0 South Napa earthquake, an alert was issued providing a nine-second warning to the City of San Francisco. During a May 3rd, magnitude-3.8 event in Los Angeles, an alert was issued 3.3 seconds after the earthquake began, meaning the warning was sent before the secondary, or “S” waves that have the potential for the strongest shaking, had even reached the Earth’s surface. An electronic alert message that travels at the speed of light can outrun the slower earthquake S-waves, providing valuable seconds of warning. Those few seconds of warning can be enough time to stop a commuter train or an elevator, open fire-house doors, stop delicate surgery and “duck, cover, and hold on.”

The plans for ShakeAlert were evaluated by a scientifically rigorous peer-review process: a panel of experts praised the progress achieved and recommended the proposed improvements. The successes of this effective ShakeAlert collaboration among the USGS and the universities led Congress to appropriate $5 million to the USGS in fiscal year 2015 to accelerate the process of migrating towards a public EEW system. In addition to USGS and university partners, the ShakeAlert system involves the participation of state and local governments, end users, and private-sector partners.

Previously on Boing Boing:
"How earthquakes work, and how science makes us safer"

"Earthquake prediction and your smartphone: could phone GPS help predict the next big one?"

"Earthquake Prediction: Could We Ever Forecast the Next Big One?"