Scientists developing earthquake early warning system for entire West Coast

SEATTLE - It’s a link up that could lead to a more improved earthquake early warning system for the entire west coast.

On Monday, seismic sensors at the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) linked up with a network of sensors in California to form a unified Shake Alert system.

“The milestone that we are passing is an important one,” said Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning Coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey.

For years, seismologists with the PNSN have been working on a version of the Shake Alert system while fellow seismologists were doing the same in California.

After some horse trading, the seismologists tweak their systems to use the same technology to merge the two systems together.

It will be years before Shake Alert can be used in the form of a smartphone app like an Amber Alert. But, the link will allow specific organizations to include the alerts in real products.

Bothell-based RH2, an engineering firm that designs large scale water and sewer projects, is the only organization in Washington state that’s been given approval to incorporate ShakeAlert into their products as part of pilot test.

“We could for example, close a valve on water storage reservoir, so that in case the pipelines downstream of that reservoir were damaged, the reservoir wouldn't empty,” said RH2 CEO Dan Ervin.

The linked network now includes 700 seismic monitoring stations with 178 in the Pacific Northwest, most in the metropolitan region of Seattle.

“Our plans call for another 1,000 stations,” said Given. “So we are only about 40 percent of the way there to build out the sensor capacity needed to build out the system”

The USGS has received half the $38 million needed to build out the system. A majority of the financial lift will have to come from Congress for the build out.

“It’s not going to be a one year, write the check and it’s going to get built," said U.S. Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA 6th District), who is a big supporter of the project.

The Democrat representing the 6th Congressional District surrounding Port Angeles says there is bipartisan support, but he's worried about President Trump' priorities.

“I’m very concerned about the Trump administration's budget blueprint because it takes a huge whack at science funding,” said Kilmer.

The technology is being used in Japan, where the public receives instantaneous warning in public buildings, transportation hubs and on cell phones.

The USGS says scientists need to rule out more false positive before that kind of roll out can take place in the US.

Any kind of narrow public roll out will most likely take place in California, where several key organizations such as Bay Area Rapid Transit, the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco and the Los Angeles Unified School District are already part of the Shake Alert pilot project.

“For example if you were riding on BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] today and your train stopped, you could very well be stopped as a result of an earthquake early warning,” said Given, who said BART has had this form of a public use system since 2012.

He said the Pacific Northwest has some catching up to do to match its California counter parts.

“The network in the Pacific Northwest has traditionally been a little behind the curve,” said Given. “Because you don’t have earthquakes as often and the need is not perceived as great as it is in California.

By:  Matt Markovich