Environment & Science

Trump's budget slashes earthquake early warning system

Russell Oliver removes the plastic from a brand new STS 2.5, a top of the line motion sensor. This sensor is part of a pilot system that could provide Californians with up to a minute of warning before an earthquake reaches them.
Russell Oliver removes the plastic from a brand new STS 2.5, a top of the line motion sensor. This sensor is part of a pilot system that could provide Californians with up to a minute of warning before an earthquake reaches them.
Sanden Totten/KPCC

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President Donald Trump's proposed budget would cut federal funding for the West Coast's earthquake early warning system. Known as ShakeAlert, it monitors seismic activity in California, Oregon and Washington.

Developed in conjunction with various universities, the system doesn't predict earthquakes — as far as scientists can tell, nothing does — but it can warn people at the start of a temblor that they're about to experience some major shaking. 

WHEN THE SHAKING STARTS

"The idea of earthquake early warning is, can we get the information so quickly that we can beat the strong shaking? The earthquake's already begun but if we have fast enough computer algorithms we can actually get that [information] out before the strong shaking, so that people can take action," . We're talking seconds, tens of seconds," Dave Applegate, acting deputy director of the U.S. Geological Survey, tells KPCC.

That tiny window can be critical, allowing people to take cover or stop critical industrial processes and transportation systems.

A version of the ShakeAlert system has been undergoing testing but needs more seismic sensors. The proposed funding cuts for the next fiscal year, which begins October 1, would come from the budget of the USGS.

Applegate tells KPCC that the USGS invested $8 million in the program last year. States and universities also add money to the pot.

In many areas of Southern California, the current system will warn residents of a strong earthquake 10 to 20 seconds after the shaking has started, according to Applegate. Seismologists are working to speed up the response time.

"If this budget was passed, it would suspend the implementation of that new capability, which is to get it out so fast that you actually beat the strong shaking," Applegate says. 

REACTIONS

Veteran seismologist Lucy Jones, who recently retired from the U.S. Geological Survey after years of providing earthquake information to the public, issued a statement saying she was deeply disappointed:

"Eliminating the $10 million (per) year that the government has been spending would stop the program and waste the $23 million that has already been invested," she said in a statement. "The talented scientists and technicians that are working on the project now will go to other jobs, so their experience and expertise would be lost."

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti echoed those sentiments in a statement he issued:

"A major earthquake in Southern California is not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’ The President’s proposal to eliminate funding for the West Coast’s earthquake early warning system is an abandonment of his duty to protect Americans, and I trust that our representatives in Congress will have the wisdom to reject a plan that could cost lives."

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Los Angeles-area Democrat, said in a Facebook post that the system should not be stopped just as it is being expanded after years of work:

"Support for the early warning system in Congress is sustained, growing and bipartisan, and we will not accept this attempt by the president to cut a vital funding stream for a program that will protect life, property and critical infrastructure," Schiff wrote.

Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican who represents an inland Southern California district, is chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and the Environment and has supported funding of the earthquake warning system in the past.

In a statement Tuesday he did not mention the warning system specifically, but noted that the budget "proposes some reductions for agencies that fall within the Interior Subcommittee's jurisdiction. Those agencies perform important work, so the members of our committee will be faced with making some difficult decisions."

A telephone message seeking comment was left Friday morning at Calvert's district office in Corona.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch Englander called the funding cuts "a threat to the lives of millions of people in California and beyond."

Englander's district includes the epicenter of the deadly 1994 Northridge earthquake that caused billions of dollars in damage to Los Angeles and neighboring areas.

"When it comes to earthquakes, seconds matter," he said in a statement. "A fully deployed early warning system would give time for elevators to shut down, hospitals to turn on backup generators, and people to take cover."