Earlier this month the UW and other West Coast institutions were awarded a $3.6 million grant for ShakeAlert, an early warning system that will be available to the public through mobile phones in the next few years.

ShakeAlert is an early warning system being installed in California and the Pacific Northwest by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The system detects seismic data and predicts how much shaking to expect in the event of an earthquake. It is part of a prototype system that has been developed over the last three years.

“From a few seconds of data we determine the magnitude, and location, and time of the earthquake, then we predict at a certain location for the user how much shaking they would expect and when that shaking would occur,” said Brendan Crowell, a UW research scientist in the earth and space sciences department.

The UW is the location of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN), one of three regional seismic networks along the West Coast. There are about 300 seismometers throughout Oregon and Washington.

The UW, University of California Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology were awarded the grant by the Gordon Betty Moore Foundation. The grant will go toward further improving the ShakeAlert system to better prepare for the Cascadia subduction zone earthquake and other threats in the region.

“People have now looked at the situation and realized that there are some things we need to do, and that’s what we’re doing with the early warning system and other hazard mitigation efforts,” said John Vidale, UW professor and director of the PNSN.

On Feb. 2, the White House issued an executive order to help improve earthquake resiliency in federal buildings across the nation.

The order, titled Establishing a Federal Earthquake Risk Management Standard, read in part: “It is the policy of the United States to strengthen the security and resilience of the Nation against earthquakes, to promote public safety, economic strength, and national security. To that end, the Federal Government must continue to take proactive steps to enhance the resilience of buildings that are owned, leased, financed, or regulated by the Federal Government.”

ShakeAlert will have a learning curve, but education efforts will be crucial in helping the public use the tool.

“There’s going to be quite a big public education that goes on,” Crowell said. “Teaching the public how to use those alerts is going to be key.”

Last July the USGS awarded $5 million to four West Coast institutions, including the UW, for earthquake early warning systems.

It will cost an estimated $16.1 million each year to fully fund the entire West Coast ShakeAlert system, according to the implementation plan. Before the system can be made available to the public, it must be fully funded, undergo a series of tests, and all its necessary equipment must be built, which will take another year or two. 

“One way that we intend for it to work is for it to go to cell phone apps, so that your cell phone plays a particular tone followed by a message of how strong the shaking is about to be and when it will arrive,” Vidale said.

The alert will warn people to get undercover, signal traffic lights and airplanes, and alert industrial processes to stop production. It will also warn IT companies to cancel financial transfers in case the computer systems were to crash.

“We like to emphasize that it’s really nice to be at the UW and working on something that the public is interested in,” Vidale said, “as well as something that can improve public safety and also involves science.”


Reach reporter Kennedy Wirth at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @kennedywirth

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