Congress appropriates funds for earthquake warning system

Tracy Lam/Staff

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At a White House event Tuesday, Congress appropriated $8.2 million from the federal budget to improve the earthquake warning system ShakeAlert, designed at UC Berkeley.

ShakeAlert, still a prototype, aims to improve early earthquake detection in the Western United States by installing underground sensors along fault lines and issuing a warning to cellphones throughout the region. The system’s principal investigator, UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory director Richard Allen, spoke at the White House Earthquake Resilience summit, which highlighted options for improving detection of and response to earthquakes.

This next-generation production prototype will allow beta users to develop and deploy pilot implementations that take protective actions based on the (U.S. Geological Survey) ShakeAlert warnings,” said a White House press release.

Researchers from UC Berkeley, Caltech, the University of Oregon and the University of Washington are collaborating with the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, which receives funding from Congress to expand research on ShakeAlert. USGS spokesperson Justin Pressfield expressed hope that within the next two years, the system would be widely available.

Allen said the government funds would help cover operational costs of the system. In addition, the project has received $6.5 million in funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation since 2011, with another commitment of $3.6 million announced Tuesday. The project would need an additional funding of $38 million, however, to fully build out its network of 1,000 more sensors and make the system available to the public, Allen said.

The current lack of sensors decreases the accuracy of a warning and can result in false positives: detecting an earthquake that doesn’t occur or not reacting when an earthquake does occur, according to campus astronomy professor Joshua Bloom, who serves on the advisory board of the Berkeley Seismology Laboratory.

“Just because it worked for one or two or three earthquakes, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work all the time,” Bloom said. “The system is built on trust.”

Even if ShakeAlert were to receive more funding, Pressfield said a barrier to installing more sensors is receiving permission to install them on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. According to Allen, however, the sensors are only 16 centimeters wide and 30 centimeters high.

“I have no idea what the issue is with the (Forest) Service,” said Allen. “The footprint of these sensors is really very small.”

In 2014, a ShakeAlert prototype provided beta users in Berkeley and San Francisco with a five-second warning about a magnitude-6 earthquake in Napa, California. The warning gave San Francisco enough time to stop its train systems in order to prevent derailment.

But those in Napa, who did not have access to the ShakeAlert prototype at the time of the tremor, would not have received advance notice of the earthquake, because the system cannot predict earthquakes at their epicenter. Bloom, who has access to the ShakeAlert prototype, said users would have needed to be 20 to 100 miles away from the epicenter of the earthquake to get significant warning time.

According to Allen, were an earthquake to occur in Napa now, upgrades to the system would allow users in the city to receive a warning.

Allen said getting the additional funding to expand the ShakeAlert system is only a matter of political will.

“It’s relatively inexpensive, considering the cost benefit we will get from early warnings. The cost of a single train derailment is very expensive,” said Pressfield. “In the long term, we will be saving money.”