UC Berkeley seismologists’ data informs early earthquake warning systems in U.S.

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A team of seismologists from UC Berkeley, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute are using data collected on Mexico’s earthquake early warning, or EEW, systems to inform the development of a system for the West Coast.

Richard Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, led the group of seismologists during the trip to Mexico. The purpose of the trip was to gather information on the reactions from citizens of Mexico about the EEW systems that were in place during the earthquakes in Chiapas and Puebla on Sept. 7 and Sept. 19, respectively. The data will guide the development of ShakeAlert, a prototype system for the West Coast.

“Having the chance to … test early warning systems with real earthquakes teaches us something new every time,” said Robert-Michael de Groot, a spokesperson for ShakeAlert.

The seismologists found that people in Mexico tended to value the alerts, even if the shaking occurred in another location and they did not experience it themselves, according to de Groot. The research also emphasized the importance of simplicity in alerts, consistency of information provided through channels to the public and development for disaster-preparedness education and policy, Allen said in an article for Science Magazine.

“I think the technical aspects of ShakeAlert are well-established,” de Groot said. “Where I think this research is going to have a lot of impact is in the messages.”

De Groot said “keeping it simple” is crucial when it comes to messages in the EEW systems. He added that the research in Mexico City reinforces the need for a standard of messaging, education and training across the system that is being developed in the three states.

Additionally, de Groot emphasized the need for an alert sound that is uniform across the system so that it eventually becomes a “cognitive shortcut” for people to take protective action.

“We have learned that EEW systems, even imperfect ones, can help people prepare for earthquakes and build local seismic culture, both beneficial in reducing earthquake-related losses,” the article said.

Jennifer Strauss, a spokesperson for the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, said that as ShakeAlert is being tested and piloted in the U.S., developers look to systems in other countries such as Mexico and Japan to become aware of new initiatives concerning their EEW systems.

Strauss added that it is useful to hear “real life experiences” from people who have been living with systems such as the EEW in Mexico because it provides insight into its value for the people who live there. Strauss said Allen’s research has reinforced ideas about ShakeAlert and corrected any misconceptions about the system.

“We’ve worked with many international groups on EEW,” Strauss said. “We want to constantly be learning about what other countries are doing (and) how people use the alerts.”

Contact Cade Johnson at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @cadejohnson98.