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Earthquake and Early Warning: $4 Million to 4 West Coast Universities

Aug 04, 2015 01:28 PM EDT

Closely following a New Yorker article that said earthquake effects in the Pacific Northwest would be quite serious, the U.S. Geological Survey recently awarded $4 million to four universities, California Institute of Technology, University of California, Berkeley, University of Washington and University of Oregon, in order to help them transition an earthquake early warning system, "ShakeAlert," toward a production stage, according to a release.

The goal of such systems is to give citizens a few extra seconds to take precautions before the heaviest shaking waves of an earthquake arrive.
Research for this system began in 2006, but the new funding will help turn it into a public-facing system. The USGS has spent about $1 million more to buy new sensor equipment for that system. Funding comes from a $5 million increase to the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program for EEW, approved by Congress earlier this year, the release said.

The new cooperative agreements between USGS and the four university partners will aim to improve the ShakeAlert system across the United States' West Coast and continue to coordinate across regional centers in the Pacific Northwest, southern California, and northern California. How this will work: They'll continue to develop algorithms to rapidly detect earthquakes, test the system, and improve its performance. They'll also construct around 150 seismic sensors, said a release.

Other parts of the program will involve user training and education. Additional test users will also be added to the system. Seventy organizations are currently test users, from utilities and transportation, emergency management, city and state governments, and industry, the release noted.

During the magnitude-6.0 South Napa earthquake in August 2014, a nine-second warning was issued to the City of San Francisco. For a magnitude-3.8 event in Los Angeles on May 3, the alert arrived 3.3 seconds before the earthquake, meaning that testers received the warning before the secondary, or "S" waves that can be the strongest shaking, had even touched the Earth's surface, the release said.

What can happen in a few seconds? A commuter train or elevator can be stopped; fire-house doors can be opened, delicate surgery can be halted; people can say, "duck, cover, and hold on," as a release noted. 

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