Screenshot: ShakeAlert

The prototype ShakeAlert earthquake early-warning system was fully extended from California to include Washington and Oregon last week, reports the Seattle Times.

ShakeAlert was developed by The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) along with a coalition of State and university partners specifically for the west coast of the United States because of our heightened earthquake risk. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 77 percent of our national earthquake risk, or an average predicted annual loss of $4.1 billion, is concentrated on the West Coast in California, Oregon and Washington.

According to the ShakeAlert website, the purpose of the technology is to, “identify and characterize an earthquake a few seconds after it begins, calculate the likely intensity of ground shaking that will result, and deliver warnings to people and infrastructure in harm’s way.”

But how can receiving a few seconds of warning actually prepare us for the mayhem of an earthquake? As local engineer Dan Ervin of RH2 Engineering firm explained to the Seattle Times, the most important thing Seattle can do when warned of an impending earthquake, is to close the city’s water valves. When water mains break during earthquakes, the water in storage tanks can drain away at a time when it is desperately needed, Ervin explained. The RH2 company designed water systems in Renton and Kirkland, and currently installs special tank valves that can be closed remotely. They are designed to shut automatically when the ground shakes.

Additionally, ShakeAlert says an earthquake warning system could prompt the following human and automated responses.  

Human Responses

  • Public — Citizens, including school children, Drop, Cover, and Hold On; turn off stoves; safely stop vehicles.
  • Businesses — Personnel move to safe locations.
  • Medical services — Surgeons, dentists and others stop delicate procedures.
  • Emergency responders — Open firehouse doors, personnel prepare and prioritize response decisions.

Automated Responses

  • Businesses — Open elevator doors, shut down production lines, secure chemicals, place sensitive equipment in a safe mode.
  • Transportation — Automatically slow or stop trains to prevent derailment.
  • Power infrastructure — Protect power stations and grid facilities from strong shaking.

The technology is already widely used in Japan. People receive warnings on their cellphones and trains are wired to come to a stop as the earth begins to quake.

Companies in the Northwest, such as Boeing, Intel and many public agencies are all brainstorming ways that they might make use of the technology. However, since the project is still a prototype, participating companies must sign “pilot user” agreements with the USGS because of the probability the developing technology will set off false alarms.

For ShakeAlert to most effectively serve Washington state, we will need more funding. The agency estimates it will take $38 million more to add enough instruments for a highly reliable network. Several more sensors are needed around the Seattle Fault, John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network told the Seattle Times.

California allocated $10 million to improve its network and Oregon is spending $1 million for new instruments. But Washington hasn’t put aside any funds for the project. Additionally, with President Donald Trump’s proposed budget calling for a 15 percent cut for agencies like the USGS, future funding is uncertain.

The USGS hopes to roll out a limited, public version of ShakeAlert next year.

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