The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) along with a coalition of university partners are developing and testing an earthquake early warning system called ShakeAlert for the west coast of the United States. The work is being funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the USGS. The State of California is also a partner in this project through the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the California Geological Survey.
The project partners:
- United States Geological Survey
- California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES)
- California Geological Survey
- California Institute of Technology
- University of California Berkeley
- University of Washington
- University of Oregon
Earthquakes pose a national challenge because 75 million Americans live in areas of significant seismic risk across 39 states. Most of our Nation’s earthquake risk is concentrated on the West Coast of the United States. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated the average annualized loss from earthquakes, nationwide, to be $5.3 billion, with 77 percent of that figure ($4.1 billion) coming from California, Washington, and Oregon, and 66 percent ($3.5 billion) from California alone. In the next 30 years, California has a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake and the Pacific Northwest has a 10 percent chance of a magnitude 8 to 9 megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone.
Today, the technology exists to detect earthquakes, so quickly, that an alert can reach some areas before strong shaking arrives. The purpose of the ShakeAlert system 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. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave arrives, bringing the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage.
Studies of earthquake early warning methods in California have shown that the warning time would range from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds, depending on the distance to the epicenter of the earthquake. For very large events like those expected on the San Andreas fault zone or the Cascadia subduction zone the warning time could be much longer because the affected area is much larger. ShakeAlert can give enough time to slow and stop trains and taxiing planes, to prevent cars from entering bridges and tunnels, to move away from dangerous machines or chemicals in work environments and to take cover under a desk, or to automatically shut down and isolate industrial systems. Taking such actions before shaking starts can reduce damage and casualties during an earthquake. It can also prevent cascading failures in the aftermath of an event. For example, isolating utilities before shaking starts can reduce the number of fire initiations.
The USGS will issue public warnings of potentially damaging earthquakes and provide warning parameter data to government agencies and private users on a region-by-region basis, as soon as the ShakeAlert system, its products, and its parametric data meet minimum quality and reliability standards in those geographic regions. Product availability will expand geographically via ANSS regional seismic networks, such that ShakeAlert products and warnings become available for all regions with dense seismic instrumentation.
The West Coast ShakeAlert system is being developed by expanding and upgrading the infrastructure of three regional seismic networks that are part of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS); in southern California (Southern California Seismic Network, SCSN), northern California (Northern California Seismic System, NCSS), and the Pacific Northwest (Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, PNSN). This enables the USGS and ANSS to leverage their substantial investment in sensor networks, data telemetry systems, data processing centers, and software for earthquake monitoring activities residing in these network centers. The ShakeAlert system has been sending live alerts to “beta” test users in California since January of 2012 and in the Pacific Northwest since February of 2015.
In February of 2016 the USGS, along with its partners, rolled-out the next-generation ShakeAlert early warning test system in California. This “production prototype” has been designed for redundant, reliable operations. The system includes geographically distributed servers, and allows for automatic fail-over if connection is lost.
This next-generation system will not yet support public warnings but will allow selected early adopters to develop and deploy pilot implementations that take protective actions triggered by the ShakeAlert warnings in areas with sufficient coverage.
The USGS will develop and operated the system, and issue public EEW system notifications under collaborative authorities with FEMA, as part of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, as enacted by the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, 42 U.S.C. §§ 7704 SEC. 2..