Federal funding increase moves ShakeAlert closer to reality

A recent boost in federal funding will move the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system closer to completion.

ShakeAlert is being developed by the U.S. Geological Survey and researchers at the University of Oregon, University of Washington, California Institute of Technology and University of California, Berkeley. All of the schools have operated USGS seismic networks for decades and are expanding their efforts to include earthquake early warning capabilities.

The omnibus spending package passed by Congress and signed by the president in March that funds the federal government through Sept. 30 allocates $12.9 million for continued development and limited public rollout of the system. It also appropriates $10 million for capital costs to add more earthquake sensors and improve system infrastructure.

Congress allocated $10.2 million to ShakeAlert last year. The omnibus action more than doubles the funding for ShakeAlert by making a significant investment in the important seismic network infrastructure that supports the alert system.

UO faculty members and their collaborators are revising the rollout plan, including how funds will be distributed among participating universities.

“This additional funding is much needed to build out the ShakeAlert network and support the personnel that operate and maintain the system,” said Doug Toomey, a UO seismologist in the Department of Earth Sciences and lead investigator for the Oregon component of ShakeAlert. “We are appreciative of our members of Congress who continue to advocate for this needed system that will help save lives, reduce damage to infrastructure and increase the resiliency of Oregon.”

Congress has consistently added funds to the USGS budget for the project. However, President Donald Trump’s request for the coming budget year zeros out ShakeAlert.

The Oregon congressional delegation has been a vocal supporter of ShakeAlert and is working to secure future funding. U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, in tandem with fellow Democrats Rep. Adam Schiff of California and Rep. Susan DelBene of Washington, is leading the effort, urging House colleagues to sign a letter in support of 2019 earthquake early warning appropriations.

A similar effort is underway on the Senate side. This year, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, and fellow senators from California and Washington asked colleagues to support the omnibus allocation.

State leaders, including Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, and the city of Portland also continue to advocate for earthquake early warning efforts. The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries provided a total of $375,000 in 2017 and 2018.

In addition, state legislators are serving on a statewide stakeholders committee, coordinated by UO researchers, that focuses on earthquake early warning education and outreach. State officials have said they will continue to advocate for increased state funding to install more seismic sensors.

Earthquake early warning, in which sensors detect and send alerts from the fast-moving P waves that spread outward from an earthquake in advance of slower-moving and more damaging S waves, could prove critical in a big quake. Through a mobile app, people will get between seconds and several minutes of warning to seek safety.

In that time, industries may be able to power down critical operations to protect both human lives and equipment. Transportation agencies may eventually be able to close down bridges, which could save lives. Earthquake early warning systems are already in use in other countries, including Japan and Mexico.