Environment & Science

Earthquake early warning system gets $4 million from USGS

Seismic engineer Josh Sessoms is in vault where a $17,000 motion sensor will sit. He is using a laptop to test the system as he installs the sensor.
Seismic engineer Josh Sessoms is in vault where a $17,000 motion sensor will sit. He is using a laptop to test the system as he installs the sensor.
Sanden Totten/KPCC

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The U.S. Geological Survey announced Thursday it will put another $4 million toward its "ShakeAlert" earthquake early warning system.

"ShakeAlert" is not a predictive system. Rather, the early warning program detects a quake just as it is starting and sends an alert to nearby towns and cities before the shaking reaches them.

Last August when a magnitude 6.0 quake struck South Napa, a test version of the system was able to send a 9 second warning to the City of San Francisco, giving those testing it time to drop, cover and hold on.

The funding comes from a $5 million boost to the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program budget, which was approved by Congress earlier this year. The USGS already spent $1 million on the equipment for the prototype earlier this year.

The hope is that one day, "ShakeAlert" messages could be sent directly to cell phones across the region the same way flood warnings and Amber Alerts are, though the cell network would likely need improvements first.

Trains, elevators, roller coasters, factory lines and utilities could also receive earthquake warnings, giving them time to shut down before seismic waves strike.

For the system to work, computers need to be able to sense the difference between the various types of quakes, explained Cecily Wolfe with the USGS.

"We're still getting data from earthquakes and working to characterize performance," she said.

For example, quakes in the Pacific Northwest can stem from a subduction zone, which creates a different seismic pattern than ones from a slip fault like the San Andreas.

Wolfe says some of the $4 million will go toward improving the scientific algorithms that detect these quakes.

Additionally, the money will fund upgrades and construction of about 150 seismic sensors—these are the devices buried near faults that detect shaking when it starts. New ones can cost up to $17,000 each.

Currently there are 624 sensors sophisticated enough to be part of the network, according to Wolfe.

"The plan in the end is to have more than 1,600 sensors," she noted.

(Caption: An STS 2.0, a very sophisticated motion sensor. Russell Oliver is removing this one and replacing it with an STS 2.5.)

USGS also plans to work on user training and education materials and add more early warning system testers to their roster of 70 state and private organizations already using the alerts.

"We are constantly reminded of our vulnerability—with tremors, earthquakes and aftershocks rattling our homes and business," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who helped secure the funding, in a statement.

"Even a few seconds of warning will allow people to seek cover, slow or stop trains, pause surgeries, and more."

The ShakeAlert early warning system is a joint collaboration between the Survey, Caltech, University of California at Berkeley, University of Washington and University of Oregon.