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UW seismologists lack funding to make Earthquake Early Warning system public

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Doug Gibbons, a research assistant at the UW Seismology Lab, explains how an early warning system can detect an earthquake up to minutes before it strikes Puget Sound. This would alert residents and allow them to safely prepare for the quake.

The Pacific Northwest Seismology Network (PNSN) recently implemented an earthquake warning system to predict the strength and location of earthquakes and provide short-term warnings. After four years of development stemming from the UW Atmospheric Sciences Building and spanning throughout the Pacific Northwest, the system has few flaws but one big barrier: the lack of funding to make it public.

“Right now we’re funded to deploy the sensors and get them running but we haven’t established how the public is going to be aware of that or trained to use it,” said Doug Gibbons, PNSN’s NetQuakes and educational outreach coordinator.

Bill Steele, PNSN’s director of outreach and communities, explained that over the next 50 years there is a decent probability of multiple types of earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest. He said there is a 15 percent chance of the “Big One,” a major earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone that would severely impact the West Coast with shaking that could damage infrastructure in Portland, Ore., the Willamette Valley, and the Puget Sound. Additionally, we face a 15 percent probability of a big crustal earthquake in the Puget Sound and an 84 percent chance of a deep earthquake, similar to the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake.

“You can’t say ‘it’ll hit any minute now,’ it might be hundreds of years before we have the next earthquake,” Steele said. “But certainly it’s a high enough probability that we need to be prepared.”

Steele referenced a Federal Emergency Management Agency study showing California at the highest risk for potential earthquake damage at $3.1 billion per year, and the Pacific Northwest at risk for the second most damage in the nation at $540 million per year.

“The operation of this Earthquake Early Warning system (EEW) from the Mexican border into Canada would cost about $16 million a year to operate,” Steele said. “These annual losses just dwarf that.”

At this point they have about half of that funding, and they are waiting for congress to approve further funding to the United States Geological Survey for this project.

Gibbons explained that the PNSN has nearly 400 sensors throughout Washington and Oregon and much of the data they collect is used for EEW. These sensors, some of which entail up to 32 miles of hiking trails to maintain, predict the arrival and intensity of shaking from an earthquake from 10 seconds up to three minutes ahead of time, depending on where the earthquake originates. This technology has been used in Japan and California, and recently in the Pacific Northwest.

“A lot can happen in 10 seconds,” Steele said. “Elevators can drop to the next floor and open their doors, trains are much more vulnerable to derail when they’re traveling at high speed so even if you can slow them down 20 miles an hour you really improve the resiliency of them staying on the track.”

Stacie Smith, UW’s seismic resilience manager, added that 10 seconds would also allow for doctors to pause surgeries and for first responders to open their electric garage doors so vehicles wouldn’t be trapped inside.

Smith explained that the UW has an All Hazard plan to follow in case of earthquakes and other hazardous events. She was hired this fall to improve seismic safety on campus and sees this EEW technology as very beneficial.

Gibbons stressed the need not only for funding to put EEW into motion but also for long-term funding.

“We don’t want this to be on the budget chopping block every few years,” Gibbons said. “It’s one thing to fund it temporarily to put the instruments out there but it’s really going to take a permanent allocation to keep the system running and to begin the public outreach that needs to happen to make it work.” 

He also emphasized the need for this technology to move beyond the basement of the Atmospheric Sciences Building and into the public sphere to create impact.

“At the root of it we’re the squiggle people,” Gibbons said, referring to the records that seismometers create. “We’re the [seismic] lines, the warning system. We’re now at the point where it’s time for social scientist’s, community managers, and government leaders to step up and decide what they want to do with this potential.”


Reach reporter Megan Herndon at Twitter: @megherndon

(1) comment

The current best method to publicly deliver is IPAWS (a FEMA program). It includes EAS on radio and TV and WEA to smartphones. Currently it is too slow for the Earthquake Early Warning System. However new technology has been proposed and funding for IPAWS improvements is in House Bills HR 1472 and HR 1738. The Senate has passed HR 1180. Meanwhile alerts can be delivered by TCP/IP on internet and SMS to cellphones via alerting businesses.

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