At a big seismic summit yesterday at the White House, the federal government reaffirmed its commitment to creating an early warning system for earthquakes. A great new video shows exactly how this might work—and illustrates how it could help save lives.
The ShakeAlert system developed by UC Berkeley, Caltech, the University of Washington, and the USGS is already up and running—I got to see a prototype at Caltech in 2014, and there have been multiple real-world tests which prove it works. The proposed system would launch first along the Pacific Coast, which is most at-risk, then could be implemented in other parts of the country.
In the video, you can see exactly how ShakeAlert would work in one of the most commonly envisioned scenarios—at a school. The teacher is alerted to a nearby earthquake via text message, much like emergency messages you get on your phone now. Clicking through to the app, a countdown shows her how much time she has before the shaking starts, and also how strong of an earthquake to expect. In the scenario shown in the video, a classroom full of kids have enough time to get under their desks, which could prevent serious injury from broken glass or other falling objects.
Could a few seconds really make that much of a difference? Scientists say yes. UC Berkeley’s Richard Allen said yesterday that the system could reduce injuries from an earthquake by at least 50 percent. One of the biggest challenges for emergency responders is getting medical attention to people who need it in those few critical hours after a big earthquake: Imagine 50 percent fewer people trying to drive to hospitals or flooding already overloaded phone service asking for help.
Although the White House renewed its pledge yesterday to get the system up and running, the project still needs more money. President Obama allocated $8.2 million for the ShakeAlert system in this year’s budget, but the estimated total cost is about $23.1 million, with $16.1 million more needed each year to maintain it. The biggest cost is for the sensors which need to be installed throughout the region for the system to be effective. However, USGS has reported recently that GPS-enabled smartphones might be sensitive enough when it comes to monitoring movement that this data could help build out the sensor system, believe it or not.
Earthquake early warning systems, or EEWs, are common in many other seismically active countries, like Japan and Mexico. The fact that the US doesn’t have one already could be devastating when the Big One (or the Biggest One) arrives.