The ShakeAlert earthquake early warning program has hit a milestone by becoming a West Coast-wide system.

Moore Foundation grantees at the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Washington recently held an event introducing pilot uses of the earthquake early warning system in Washington and Oregon. The prototype ShakeAlert system first rolled out in California in 2016. 

The new extension means all three West Coast states are now operating with the same technology, said Doug Given, project coordinator for the USGS. And while the system isn’t yet ready for public use, pilot organizations can start figuring out what to do with a few seconds or minutes of warning before the ground starts shaking.

Timely warnings of an earthquake could provide several seconds, and in favorable cases up to a minute or two, before the arrival of a damaging earthquake. Even a few seconds can allow time to take cover in safe locations, slow trains, stop elevators, or automatically stop critical processes to mitigate damage or enhance public safety.

The ShakeAlert system relies on a dense network of seismometers, and the fact that initial seismic waves from an earthquake travel quickly through the ground without causing much damage. The first sensors to detect these waves can beam warnings to populated areas before the dangerous seismic waves arrive.

"We are thrilled to take the first steps in integrating earthquake early warning into the Pacific Northwest," said John Vidale, professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. "Our teamwork has made it possible to reach this milestone so quickly."

The USGS estimates it will cost $38.3 million in capital investment to complete the ShakeAlert system on the West Coast to the point of issuing public alerts, and $16.1 million each year to operate and maintain it. This is in addition to current funding to support earthquake monitoring networks.

California recently allocated $10 million to strengthen its network. Oregon is spending $1 million for new instruments. Washington has yet to earmark any money for the project. The USGS hopes to roll out a limited, public version of ShakeAlert next year.

Since 2011, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has supported funding to the California Institute of Technology, University of California, Berkeley, University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey, investing nearly $6.5 million to research, develop and test the West Coast earthquake early warning system.  


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