When it comes to inclement weather, we’re always looking for a way to stay a step ahead of the next storm or flood. That’s what makes earthquakes such menacing disasters to face: They come quickly with little warning and can cause immense damage to nearby cities and towns.
Imagine if there was way to know before an earthquake strikes. Every second of warning is vital. Early warning allows people to seek shelter from falling debris, turn off gas lines to prevent fires, or stop a surgery to minimize harm to a patient.
Most nations don’t think about earthquake early warning systems until after a major quake hits.
That’s why researchers at the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab and United States Geologic Service (USGS) are developing an app that can bring us up to 80 seconds of warning before an earthquake hits the west coast. Believe it or not, though, the technology already exists and a handful of countries around the world use this life-saving tech.
We spoke with Jennifer Strauss from the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab about the university’s efforts to create an early warning system for earthquakes and design an app that could alert millions right before one strikes.
How ShakeAlert works
Unlike severe thunderstorms and flash floods, there’s no way to get hours of notice before an earthquake strikes. “We can have anywhere from no warning at all to a minute or two at best, depending on where the epicenter of a quake is, and its strength,” Strauss told Digital Trends.
When an earthquake begins, the primary waves (or P-waves) travel significantly faster than the more intense and dangerous secondary waves (or S-waves.) Those first waves can be interpreted in milliseconds to determine the location and intensity of an earthquake. The Berkeley Seismology Lab is currently testing an app called ShakeAlert designed to detect these waves and warn people in those precious moments before they strike.
ShakeAlert works by combining a network of seismographs and monitors with special algorithms designed to identify the intensity of a quake as quickly as possible. These monitoring stations are located all over the Western United States between Los Angeles and Seattle, and use numerous sensors to calculate an earthquake’s severity in milliseconds. If the quake is severe enough to merit a warning, then ShakeAlert sends an electronic alert to its test users across the Bay Area.
“Our phase one of this project began in 2006 with California as a beta user, but it has since expanded to include the Pacific Northwest,” said Strauss.
The entire ShakeAlert system is automated, including its integration with Bay Area Rapid Transit. BART trains will automatically slow down to minimize damage and the risk of injury. Test users receive an audiovisual alert that warns how soon the earthquake is expected, its magnitude, and how intense the shaking will be.
A strange reality about earthquakes is that their rarity limits an interest in early warning and preparedness.
ShakeAlert hopes to partner with private firms and social media companies, so it can integrate the earthquake alert system into third-party apps and websites.
“We’re definitely experts at understanding earthquakes, not making smartphone apps. That’s why we intend to partner with private firms to develop better alert apps,” explained Strauss.
The Berkeley Seismology Lab wants to ensure ShakeAlert is reliable and accurate, so that millions of Americans can depend on it when earthquakes strike. The network of seismographs and monitors require new equipment and other updates to ensure safe coverage even if a site goes down for maintenance.
Learning from Japan and Mexico
While ShakeAlert is definitely a great way to get the word out about earthquakes before they hit, it’s hardly the first attempt at such a system. USGS has learned valuable tips from earlier programs in other earthquake-prone areas. In Japan, televisions display earthquake alerts and smartphones receive a text message when a quake is expected to strike.
Just like ShakeAlert, the Japanese system can only predict earthquakes up to 90 seconds before they strike, but those precious seconds are invaluable for a city like Tokyo and its 13 million residents. When the 7.9 magnitude Tōhoku earthquake struck Japan in 2011, residents had 80 seconds of early warning from Japan’s nationwide detection system. This gave residents ample time to stop trains, seek shelter, and disable gas lines to minimize damage and injury.
Even America’s neighbor to the south, Mexico, has a better earthquake early warning system than the United States. Launched in 2013, Mexico’s SkyAlert app warns smartphone users of impending earthquakes, much like Japan’s nationwide system, but with a mobile app similar to ShakeAlert. When it comes to earthquake early warning for the public, the United States is far behind where it could be in early warning capabilities.
The tiny cost of invaluable protection
According to Strauss, operating an earthquake detection system across the Western United States would cost about $16 million a year in operating costs, not including the cost of new detection sites. This might seem like a significant amount of money, but California’s annual budget is more than $150 billion, and last year, California spent about as much on regulating horse racing as it would running a West Coast earthquake detection system.
For some perspective, Japan has an extremely similar earthquake detection system, and yet managed to launch its own system 7 years before the USGS began testing its own ShakeAlert app in 2015. Mexico’s smartphone app has been out for a long time, as well. Unfortunately, money seems to be the biggest barrier to developing our own earthquake early warning system on the West Coast.
It seems like a no brainer that the U.S. should invest in better earthquake prediction, but as Strauss noted to Digital Trends, the issue is not just finding the money, but the argument over who should pay for it.
“We’ve gotten some money from the Obama Administration toward capital costs in the last few years, but it is kind of tricky to figure out who should shoulder the financial burden for a system such as this,” she said.
A waiting game not worth waiting for
A strange reality about earthquakes is that their rarity limits an interest in early warning and preparedness. Hurricanes and snow storms are more ever-present threats, so they tend to capture the nation’s attention and preventative measure funding. Every few years, a large earthquake may shake up the region, but the last major earthquake to cause significant loss of life in California was the Northridge quake in 1994, which killed 57 people, and the last major quake to hit the Bay Area was the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, killing 63.
Most nations don’t think about earthquake early warning systems until after a major quake hits. However, according to the USGS, the Bay Area has a 63 percent chance of experiencing a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake between now and 2036. It’s less a matter of whether an earthquake will hit the West Coast, and more a matter of when one will strike.
“We could be the first nation to proactively launch an earthquake early warning system, rather than after a major earthquake,” said Strauss, adding that, “If we had a major earthquake tomorrow, I’m sure this entire project would be fully funded, but I don’t want us to wait for that to happen.”
In the meantime, the USGS and Berkeley Seismology Lab continue to research new ways to collect data on earthquakes and other seismic activity. An app recently launched by the lab called MyShake allows people to use their smartphones as a miniature seismographs, giving the lab access to new-found data so it can draw patterns and a new understanding about earthquakes and other seismic events.
“MyShake is a great opportunity to harness the availability of accelerometers in every cellphone to build a global network that can bring earthquake science into the next century,” noted Strauss.
At its core, Strauss and everyone at the Berkeley Seismology Lab sees the value smartphones can offer in the continuing mission to improve our understanding of seismic events. Earthquakes are an inevitable part of living in places such as California, Mexico, or Japan; and as our cities and populations grow, so does the risk associated with living in earthquake zones. If all goes well, ShakeAlert will soon be an app all of us can download from the App Store or Play Store for early warnings.