UC Berkeley awarded part of US Geological Survey grant for earthquake early warning system

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The United States Geological Survey awarded a $4 million grant Thursday to further develop an earthquake early warning system at four West Coast universities, including UC Berkeley.

The grant will begin to transition the early warning system, known as ShakeAlert, from the research stage to the production stage. The system is designed to eventually become a full early warning system for the West Coast.

“It is critical that the West Coast implement an earthquake early warning system that will give us a heads-up before the ‘big one’ hits,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank — who helped secure the funding — in a press release.

Started by the USGS in 2006, the program is a joint partnership between UC Berkeley, Caltech, the University of Oregon and the University of Washington.

The USGS appropriated $1.2 million of the grant specifically to the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, which will use $1.1 million to develop and operate UC Berkeley’s prototype early warning system. The remaining $100,000 will be used to install five new seismic monitoring stations in northernmost California, near the Oregon border.

When an earthquake hits, the quake sends two types of ultra-energetic seismic waves through the earth: P waves and S waves. P waves are fast and not very destructive, while S waves are slow and destructive. An early warning system is valuable because it can detect an earthquake’s size from just the P wave.

“If we can do it fast enough, we can get a warning out to people before the destructive S wave hits,” said Peggy Hellweg, operations manager of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.

According to Cecily Wolfe, who coordinates the USGS Advanced National Seismic System, San Francisco had a nine-second warning before the 2014 Napa earthquake was felt. Depending on the characteristics of an earthquake, regions such as the Pacific Northwest could have minutes, she said.

“A few seconds and even a few minutes can be enough to take protective actions — you could stop a train; stop surgery; and duck, cover and hold on,” Wolfe said. “Earthquakes can cause harm via things simply falling off the walls, so just being able to get down is valuable.”

The $4 million is a fraction of the estimated $38.2 million cost of building the system, which will then require an estimated $16.1 million annually to operate. According to Wolfe, earthquakes in the United States represent an annualized loss of $4.4 billion.

“(T)he federal government cannot, and will not, fund this system alone,” Schiff said in the release. “It’s time for our West Coast state governments and local partners to do their part with matching funding for this invaluable system.”

Contact Austin Weinstein at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @aweinstein5.