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Early warning system for quakes still years away from West Coast rollout

The West Coast may be home to Apple, Microsoft and other technology giants, but it lags other countries when it comes to having a fully functional, public early warning system for earthquakes.

Last month's devastating 6.2-magnitude quake, which killed nearly 300 people and counting in central Italy, is a reminder of the potential hazards that come with living in a seismically active region. California has several massive faults that could unleash a powerful 8.0-magitude quake, while Washington state is at risk of an even larger 9.0-magnitude temblor.

Yet despite several rounds of funding, the high-risk region has much farther to go in rolling out a potentially life-saving warning system.

"The system is operational in an extremely limited sense," said Douglas Given, the Earthquake Early Warning coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). In hopes of changing that, the geophysicist is leading the agency's efforts with university partners to develop and test a so-called ShakeAlert system on the West Coast.

An expensive solution

Work on California's advanced warning system officially started a decade ago, but it remains in testing. This summer, the state's government appropriated $10 million in funds toward building out the system. The federal government has provided just over $13 million to improve ShakeAlert, and another $6.5 million was offered up by a private organization, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

However, funding remains well short of what would be needed to complete and operate the system — and it's unclear who would foot the bill. The USGS estimates it will cost just under $40 million to completely build out ShakeAlert on the West Coast, and roughly $16 million annually to run and maintain it.

In California, there are already more than 400 ground motion sensors installed on what's known as the California Integrated Seismic Network, with remote sensor stations generally positioned several miles apart. This network is the backbone that would provide the information to ShakeAlert.

The first seismic waves that trip sensors are so-called primary waves (p-waves), which help the early warning system determine the quake's location and magnitude. That information is quickly processed, and the alert is sent out before the arrival of the stronger secondary waves (or s-waves).

Depending on the location of a tremor, the earthquake warning time can range from seconds to minutes. It would give people time to shelter under a desk or table, or hold onto something to potentially avoid injuries during the shaking.

"The urgency to be more ready for earthquakes is always there." -Tina Curry, deputy director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services

Although still in the test phase, ShakeAlert proved its value in the 2014 magnitude-6.0 quake in South Napa. A roughly 10-second alert was issued before the shaking was felt in San Francisco, which would have allowed the Bay Area Rapid Transit's trains to automatically slow or stop. (The trains weren't running because the quake occurred just after 3 a.m.)

Indeed, automated actions could also include bringing elevators down to the ground floor so people don't get trapped. There also are applications in hospitals, factories and power plants.

A handful of other test participants currently receive ShakeAlert notifications, including researchers, scientists, key agencies, and companies such as Disneyland in Anaheim.

"We're confident in its capabilities and we will work out all the bugs, minimize false alarms, things like that," said Tina Curry, deputy director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, in Sacramento. "In a couple of years we think that there'll be…at least a limited degree of what we call actual public use of this system."

Years behind Japan

The 6.7-magnitude 1994 Northridge Earthquake remains the costliest quake in U.S. history. The temblor occurred on a previously unknown fault and killed nearly 60 people, injured thousands and caused an estimated $49 billion in damage to businesses and homes.

"The urgency to be more ready for earthquakes is always there," Curry said. "We still don't know or can't predict where they will occur and when."

Yet Japan is indisputably farther along, Given said. The Asian country's nationwide system launched in 2007, and several other countries — including China, Taiwan and Mexico — have built more limited or experimental systems.

At present, the U.S. public alert infrastructure network used for things such as flash flood or hurricane weather alerts is considered generally too slow to meet the needs of a wide deployment of ShakeAlert. One remedy proposed through the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions is to use a cellular broadcast technology that would simultaneously send everyone an alert message. That's the same general technology used in Japan for its early warning system.

"As a carrier, I can say we recognize the importance to the public safety for this," said Brian Daly, a director of government and regulatory standards for AT&T. "We're putting forward this effort ahead of any FCC rulings or rulemaking efforts."

Existing cellular towers could be used for cell broadcast technology, but consumers would likely require new handsets to support the added capabilities, according to experts.


A National Guardsman stands guard outside the ruins of the Northridge Meadows Apartments where on January 17, 1994 an earthquake rocked Southern California.
Tim Clary | AFP | Getty Images
A National Guardsman stands guard outside the ruins of the Northridge Meadows Apartments where on January 17, 1994 an earthquake rocked Southern California.

In the meantime, even Seattle-based Amazon has become involved in the early warning effort. Earlier this year, the company announced it was giving an undisclosed sum of money, in the form of a research grant, to the University of Washington. That money was designated to develop a new system that would combine GPS technology and seismic data to accurately identify incoming earthquakes above magnitude 7.0.

The grant is part of Amazon Catalyst, which the company describes as "a new initiative to provide funding and mentorship for bold, globally impactful, disruptive projects proposed by members of the university community."

"We are building a system up here and we're a few years behind California, but we're hoping to have it help the public pretty soon," said seismologist John Vidale, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, based at the Seattle campus.

Sensors on the ocean floor will be used in the Pacific Northwest network to provide early earthquake warnings from the Cascadia subduction zone, which could deliver a devastating magnitude 9.0-earthquake in the region. That's about 30 times as much energy and 10 times the motion of a magnitude 8.0-temblor, Vidale noted.

"We only have half the funding at the moment that it takes to have the advance alert system perform well," the UW seismologist said. "We have it on our phones now as researchers. But it's a lot harder to send out 10 million signals than it is to send out 100."