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  • The earthquake early warning (EEW) UserDisplay in action for a scenario M7.8 earthquake. The most intense colors correspond to very strong ground shaking. The banner on top shows expected shaking at the user site. The number "14" on the left indicates warning time, and the expected intensity at the user site is shown in roman numerals, VII. Other information indicates the epicenter and date/time of the earthquake.
    Credit: Caltech
02/03/2016 12:31:06

White House Puts Spotlight on Earthquake Early-Warning System

Since the late 1970s, Caltech seismologist Tom Heaton, professor of engineering seismology, has been working to develop earthquake early-warning (EEW) systems—networks of ground-based sensors that can send data to users when the earth begins to tremble nearby, giving them seconds to potentially minutes to prepare before the shaking reaches them. In fact, Heaton wrote the first paper published on the concept in 1985. EEW systems have been implemented in countries like Japan, Mexico, and Turkey. However, the Unites States has been slow to regard EEW systems as a priority for the West Coast.

But on February 2, 2016, the White House held the Earthquake Resilience Summit, signaling a new focus on earthquake safety and EEW systems. There, stakeholders—including Caltech's Heaton and Egill Hauksson, research professor in geophysics; and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) seismologist Lucy Jones, a visiting associate in geophysics at Caltech and seismic risk advisor to the mayor of Los Angeles—discussed the need for earthquake early warning and explored steps that can be taken to make such systems a reality. 

At the summit, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation announced $3.6 million in grants to advance a West Coast EEW system called ShakeAlert, which received an initial $6 million in funding from foundation in 2011. The new grants will go to researchers working on the system at Caltech, the USGS, UC Berkeley, and the University of Washington.

"We have been successfully operating a demonstration system for several years, and we know that it works for the events that have happened in the test period," says Heaton. "However, there is still significant development that is required to ensure that the system will work reliably in very large earthquakes similar to the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake. This new funding allows us to accelerate the rate at which we develop this critical system."

In addition, the Obama Administration outlined new federal commitments to support greater earthquake safety including an executive order to ensure that new construction of federal buildings is up to code and that federal assets are available for recovery efforts after a large earthquake.

The commitments follow a December announcement from Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) that Congress has included $8.2 million in the fiscal year 2016 funding bill specifically designated for a West Coast earthquake early warning system.

"By increasing the funding for the West Coast earthquake early-warning system, Congress is sending a message to the Western states that it supports this life-saving system. But the federal government cannot do it alone and will need local stakeholders, both public and private, to get behind the effort with their own resources," said Schiff, in a press release. "The early warning system will give us critical time for trains to be slowed and surgeries to be stopped before shaking hits—saving lives and protecting infrastructure. This early warning system is an investment we need to make now, not after the 'big one' hits."

ShakeAlert utilizes a network of seismometers—instruments that measure ground motion—widely scattered across the Western states. In California, that network of sensors is called the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) and is made up of computerized seismometers that send ground-motion data back to research centers like the Seismological Laboratory at Caltech.

Here's how the current ShakeAlert works: a user display opens in a pop-up window on a recipient's computer as soon as a significant earthquake occurs in California. The screen lists the quake's estimated location and magnitude based on the sensor data received to that point, along with an estimate of how much time will pass before the shaking reaches the user's location. The program also gives an approximation of how intense that shaking will be. Since ShakeAlert uses information from a seismic event in progress, people living near the epicenter do not get much—if any—warning, but those farther away could have seconds or even tens of seconds' notice.

The goal is an improved version of ShakeAlert that will eventually give schools, utilities, industries, and the general public a heads-up in the event of a major temblor.

Read more about how ShakeAlert works and about Caltech's development of EEW systems in a feature that ran in the Summer 2013 issue of E&S magazine called Can We Predict Earthquakes?

Written by Katie Neith