What’s Up With California’s Early Warning System?

By Monica Luhar, KCET – Sept. 15, 2014


Growing concerns over last month’s 6.0 earthquake in Napa has once again prompted a discussion about an early warning system in California and on the West Coast. While other countries like Mexico and Japan have implemented such systems, the U.S. has not. Here’s an overview of a few efforts that would benefit California.

In 2007, a coalition of researchers and engineers created a prototype for a statewide earthquake early warning system called the California Integrated Seismic Network ShakeAlert. The system contains algorithms that are able to detect potential earthquakes, including the magnitude, and location seconds before it hits.

Thomas Heaton, a professor of Engineering Seismology and director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory at Caltech, is part of a team at ShakeAlert working to make a statewide early warning system a reality for Californians.

“We’ve been working on rapid seismic information in the state of California for decades now, and part of the plan has always been to make our system so effective at churning out information that some people will get information before they get the shaking,” Heaton told KCET. “I think especially at this point in time, where everyone’s walking around with a smartphone that keeps us connected to every stupid thing that goes on in the planet, it’s kind of amazing that we don’t know an earthquake is underway,” he added.

ShakeAlert is mainly used for demonstrative purposes, but is not in its operable stage quite yet.

“While the current system could be used to operate a statewide system, all of us feel that significant software development is necessary before it is appropriate to use it to automatically control critical infrastructure,” said Heaton.

The early earthquake warning system would detect earthquakes at the epicenter a few seconds before it would hit. It would also monitor how big an earthquake would be, and help the public take preventative measures.

“The earthquake budget for USGS has steadily declined so now it’s less than one-third of where it was 30 years ago. There’s no resources to do something new here in the U.S.,” said Heaton.

Heaton estimates that if USGS gives researchers the green flag for ShakeAlert, it would roughly cost $80 million dollars for the state of California. A system developed and maintained over a period of five years for the entire West Coast region would cost roughly $120 million dollars.

The ShakeAlert system at the UC Berkeley Berkeley Seismological Laboratory did in fact give an early heads up a few seconds before the Napa quake hit this August, proving that the system could be valuable if put into active use.

ShakeAlert is funded by USGS and several other foundations, and was initially developed by a coalition that includes California Institute of Technology, UC Berkeley, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and the University of Southern California.

SB 135
Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013, this state bill by Sen. Alex Padilla works to create a statewide earthquake emergency warning system in California by expanding ShakeAlert, among other provisions.

“I introduced SB 135 to make this project a priority for the state of California to acknowledge this technology exists, to make it a priority for the legislature and the governor. And to, over the next few years, deploy the system add more sensors…and develop ways to alert the public whether through Amber Alerts, signs on the freeway, or apps on the smartphones, any and every way possible,” Padilla said at an earthquake early warning conference earlier this month.

The Office of Emergency Services has until Jan. 1, 2016, to identify possible sources of funding for the system. Padilla recently organized a coalition of legislators in support of federal funding.

Federal Bills

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein released a statement following the Napa quake pushing for federal legislation and the need for an earthquake early warning system on the West Coast, not just in California.

Two federal bills from the Senate Appropriations Committee will fund the Department of the Interior for an early-warning system, and another bill will direct FEMA to allocate grant funds for the system, according to a press release.

In July, the Appropriations Committee went forward in including $5 million in funding for the 2015 fiscal year for the Earthquake Early Warning System. It marks the first time Congress has provided funding for the system, according to a release. One of the major backers of the bill included Congressman Adam Schiff.

The funds will go toward developing the system and add more sensors, hire new employees, and working towards a fully operational early earthquake system for the West Coast, according to the release.


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