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How the West Coast’s New Earthquake System ‘Shakealert’ Will Warn You of the Next ‘Big One’

October 18, 2018, 10:03 AM UTC

Next time an earthquake rumbles somewhere on the West Coast, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) will warn a few organizations and beta users of its long-delayed ShakeAlert system. The USGS announced yesterday that the system is ready for what it calls Phase 1 operations, mainly in the densely-instrumented regions around San Francisco and Los Angeles, as it continues expanding its seismic sensor network along the U.S. West Coast, reports U.S. News and World Report.

On Sept. 28, ShakeAlert implemented a 2.0 version of its software, which causes fewer false alarms and detects a higher fraction of earthquakes. It sends alerts ranging from a couple seconds to perhaps tens of seconds ahead of earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 and up. The system dates to 2006, when the U.S. Congress funded early research and development. It has since patched together funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the City of Los Angeles, and the states of California and Oregon.

The USGS estimates completing the sensor network, which is only 50% of the target size, will cost almost $40 million and that operating costs could be around $39 million a year. For now, alerts go to select partners but the USGS plans to open the system in the future, so that telecommunications companies and app developers can transmit the data.

“Most folks expect to get the alerts on their phone and that is of course is the preferred way that we’d like to get it into everybody’s hands. Unfortunately the technology that is built into your phone to send you notifications was not designed with earthquake early warning in mind,” USGS earthquake early warning coordinator Doug Given said at yesterday’s press conference.

California's incomplete sensor network means warnings can take longer in many places. Japan's is much denser.
California’s incomplete sensor network means warnings can take longer in many places. Japan’s is much denser.USGS

For the early-stage partners, which include transit operators such as Bay Area Rapid Transit, warnings can help slow down trains, shut off industrial processes, and stop medical operations. Mexico City has had such a system since 1991 and Japan, which has a much denser population and sensor network, has had a national system since 2007. Several other cities around the world have their own systems, too, each adapted to the local geological faults.

In addition to the sensor network, software analysis, and telecommunications infrastructure, earthquake early warnings systems need to educate users on how to react to each kind of warning. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena will host an event in early December for California educators on how to use the alerts to protect students.