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ShakeAlert earthquake early warning has potential big uses


Maximilian Dixon, the earthquake program manager for the Washington Emergency Management Division, is interviewed
by a radio reporter on April 10. (Photo by Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup)

ShakeAlert earthquake early warning has potential big uses

This week, the U.S. Geological Survey teamed up with the Washington Emergency Management Division, scientists and private partners to unveil the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system, connecting earthquake sensors from California to Washington state. The system is not yet ready for public use.

The event on April 10 at the University of Washington also introduced the first pilot uses of the earthquake early warning system in Washington and Oregon. The University of Washington noted that Bothell, Wash.-based RH2 Engineering will use the alerts to secure municipal water and sewer systems so these structures remain usable after a major quake. Oregon’s first test user, the Eugene Water & Electricity Board, will use alerts to lower water levels in a canal above a residential area in Oregon, and to stop turbines at a river power plant. A parallel launch event was held in Eugene the same day.

Timely warnings of an earthquake could provide several seconds, and in favorable cases up to a minute or two, before the arrival of intense shaking, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The system does not yet support public warnings but this version allows selected early adopters to develop pilot implementations that demonstrate the system’s utility and develop technologies that pave the way for broader use.

Maximilian Dixon, the earthquake program manager, for the Washington Emergency Management Division, was at the event and noted that he was working with first responders and private businesses on potential pilot projects that could support earthquake early warning and ways to educate the public.

“This system, once fully implemented and embraced by the public, could protect children in school by giving them the early warning they need to drop, cover and hold on," Dixon said. “It could improve the resilience of buildings by stopping and opening elevators and fire station doors. It could strengthen business continuity by stopping dangerous work to avoid injury in hazardous workplaces and shutting down industrial processes to protect property and help make hospitals more resilient by giving a doctor time to stop surgeries.”

In addition, the system could strengthen regional transportation networks by closing bridges and tunnels, stopping rail lines so they don’t derail and divert airplanes away from damaged airports as well as improve life-safety in coastal communities by giving them advanced warning.

Dixon said he plans to work with the Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup, made up of scientists and earthquake specialists from around the region, to come up with potential pilot projects for the system.

Dixon said in the near future the system will be tested by the state Emergency Operations Center and would likely be integrated into Resilient Washington efforts, including efforts underway by the governor’s Resilient Washington Subcabinet.

It will likely be several years before the public can access the system, largely due to funding issues. The USGS estimates it will cost $38.3 million in capital investment to complete the ShakeAlert system on the West Coast to the point of issuing public alerts, and $16.1 million each year to operate and maintain it. This is in addition to current funding to support earthquake monitoring networks.

 “We are thrilled to take the first steps in integrating earthquake early warning into life in the Pacific Northwest,” said John Vidale, the director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. “Our teamwork has made it possible to reach this milestone so quickly.”

A sample of what the ShakeAlert system looks like.