Earthquake Early Warning System Coming Say Speakers At White House Summit

Federal agencies and university scientists are making progress on the deployment of an earthquake early warning system for the West Coast. That was one of the messages from a half-day earthquake preparedness summit hosted by the White House Tuesday.

It wouldn’t be much advance warning. An alert between a few seconds up to a couple minutes ahead of strong shaking coming from a distance. But that could be enough time to save lives said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

“Not just the opportunity for us to say, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to drop, cover and hold on and make sure nothing falls on my head,’” Jewell said. “But also elevators to stop and open at a floor, fire station doors to open so that those first responders can get out, and trains to stop or slow down before they get into harm’s way.”

The former REI executive from Seattle said these short notice alerts will go out to smartphones, TVs and perhaps online services. System developers say the West Coast warning network worked in initial tests, but is not yet ready for the general public. No one at the White House earthquake summit shared a full roll out date.

Jewell noted that Japan, China, Turkey and Mexico already have operational systems for earthquake early warning. “We are not first to this party. I wish we were,” Jewell told the summit audience in Washington, D.C.

At the event, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation announced $3.6 million in new grants to advance the quake detection technology needed to trigger the warning system. Part of that funding will go to the University of Washington to develop ocean floor sensors to more closely monitor the offshore Cascadia fault.

“The performance of the earthquake early warning system would be bolstered by adding seafloor sensors directly atop the magnitude nine ground rupture,” said John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. “This information would increase the warning time and make warnings more accurate.”

In a statement, the White House said that Bellevue, Washington-based utility Puget Sound Energy chipped in $100,000 for PNSN to augment its early warning capability with eight additional seismometers to be installed on land across Washington. Amazon contributed an unspecified dollar amount for research on how the sensors can “better discriminate the size of large earthquakes,” which was said to be a particular engineering challenge.

Vidale and the Moore Foundation estimated a fully built out West Coast system would need about $16 million annually for operations and maintenance. Over recent years, Congress has increased its support for earthquake early warning research and development. “We are halfway there,” Vidale said, noting that the current year’s federal budget includes $8 million for this purpose.

Oregon Democrats, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Rep. Peter DeFazio, and Washington Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer delivered brief remarks in support of earthquake preparation at Tuesday’s summit.

Earthquake early warning is made possible by the fact that the most damaging quake tremors, known as S-waves, propagate much more slowly across the earth’s surface than electronic signals can. Experience has shown seismometers close to a quake epicenter can send a detection to a central computer for automatic evaluation. A warning can then be transmitted and reach people before the main quake shocks do. This is different from earthquake prediction, which is not possible to do at a practical level.

Also in connection with the White House summit, President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Tuesday creating a Federal Earthquake Risk Management Standard. The directive orders all new or renovated federal buildings to be equipped with the latest protections against earthquakes. The White House said the standard will improve federal buildings’ resilience to earthquakes, making them safer and ensuring federal workers can provide services after a natural disaster.