Advance warning of an earthquake – even by a few seconds – can make a significant difference in people’s lives. It can alert fire stations to open their doors and avoid trucks being trapped inside; trains can be slowed to prevent them from derailing; elevators in buildings can be opened on the nearest floor; and surgeons can make adjustments for people on operating tables. Rapid notification can also provide time for manufacturing equipment to be secured and servers to be powered down or data transferred to other locations to conserve business continuity. Even a few seconds’ warning can give people the chance to move to a secure location within their home, place of work or in a school.

The idea of an earthquake early warning system is not new. Other countries, such as Japan, have such a system in place. But in the U.S., no system exists despite the country’s west coast being one of the most seismically active geological areas in the world. In 2011, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation seized an opportunity to help develop a West Coast earthquake early warning system by providing much-needed funding for the basic science required to create it. Support for developing the backbone to the system went to three academic institutions with deep experience in seismology research and engineering: Caltech, University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington. 

Millions of dollars and years of essential groundwork

Scientists from the three universities, along with the U.S. Geological Survey, coordinated on advancing the science needed to build a prototype capable of providing advance warning of an earthquake. Scientists analyzed decades of earthquakes along the country’s West Coast to inform a process by which the location and magnitude of earthquakes could be predicted rapidly after they begin; developed both ground-level and building-specific shaking algorithms to determine when automatic shutdown of industrial processes could mitigate serious damage or injury; and created the first system to incorporate GPS data, as well as seismic data, to increase the accuracy of predicted magnitudes.

The system got its first real test on August 24, 2014. Early that morning, scientists at UC Berkeley received a “ShakeAlert” – an alarm providing warning of pending shaking resulting from a magnitude 6.0 earthquake near Napa, California. That five-second warning was a successful example that an early warning is possible. It proved the system could communicate the size, extent and timing of an earthquake.

Despite years of work developing a working prototype and the successful warning in Napa, it took until 2016 to see significant traction for implementing the system when the State of California allocated $10 million and Federal government renewed its $8 million commitment to the system. It is projected that $38.3 million is required to implement a fully operational system for California, Oregon and Washington. An additional $16.1 million will be required each year to operate and maintain the system.

How it works

The earthquake early warning system is not a predictor of future earthquakes; meaning it doesn’t let people know an earthquake will happen days or even hours in advance. Rather, it is a process that can predict that shaking is coming once an earthquake begins.

Earthquakes are made up of two kinds of waves: P and S waves. Both waves radiate out from a fault line at the same time. The P waves are compression waves, similar to sound waves. They move rapidly, traveling about six kilometers a second, carrying energy through the rock. The S waves are different. They move a little more slowly at about three kilometers per second and travel like a shaking jump rope. These waves account for the shaking we feel when an earthquake occurs and are also what cause the most damage. When an earthquake starts, the system detects the P wave emanating from the earthquake’s epicenter and automatically begins the process of analyzing the information available to issue a warning. The warning itself is sent out at the speed of light, which is about 100,000 times faster than the S waves. As an earthquake progresses, the system continues to incorporate new data in order to provide more and more accurate information to scientists and the public.

White House Summit on Earthquake Resilience

In February 2016, during at White House Summit on Earthquake Resilience, Robert Kirshner, chief program officer of our Science Program, spoke alongside representatives from Caltech, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington about the need for government funding to support the early warning system and monetary support for full-scale infrastructure. At the same time, he announced that we would dedicate another $3.6 million in grants to advance the science behind the warning system, bringing our total investment to $10.1 million.

That renewed commitment included the advancement of the MyShake app, which crowdsources earthquake information from smartphones. Though not currently connected to earthquake early warning, MyShake uses a phone’s built in accelerometers to record local shaking. The app collects information from these accelerometers, analyzes it and, if it fits the vibrational profile of a quake, relays it and the phone’s GPS coordinates to the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory for incorporation into a larger data set that will contribute to further insights into the behavior of earthquakes. 

Public-private partnerships

Following the White House summit, Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Moore Foundation, penned an editorial in Washington Monthly discussing the unique role that philanthropy can play in advancing life-saving technologies. He describes vital role philanthropy can play as society’s venture capital by investing in early-stage research, incubating technologies and paving the way for public investment in proven, life-saving infrastructure.



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