West Coast earthquake warning system to be defunded in proposed federal budget


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California’s earthquake early warning system could be defunded by President Donald Trump’s administration if Congress does not vote to continue supporting the alert system for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Trump’s proposed budget would remove the approximately $13 million of funding currently allocated to earthquake warnings.

ShakeAlert, the West Coast’s earthquake early warning, or EEW, system, consists of the rapid detection, analysis and alert of an earthquake, and it covers Oregon, Washington and California.

“California has been in this much longer than the Pacific Northwest has, so we’re much more worked out than they are,” said Robert de Groot, the coordinator for communication, education and outreach at the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Science Center in Pasadena. “We’re about 48 percent of the way there, so there are 859 (seismometer) stations currently.”

With ShakeAlert, false alarms are a possibility, but according to UC Berkeley Seismological Lab external relations officer Jennifer Strauss, they are a good opportunity to practice earthquake drills.

The Trump administration attempted and failed to defund earthquake warnings in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

“This same thing happened to us last year when Trump zeroed out the budget, and we got bipartisan support to get the funding reinstated. So we’re hopeful for the same thing to occur this year,” Strauss said.

If the Trump administration is successful in defunding the EEW system, ShakeAlert will either be shut down or scaled back considerably because it needs to maintain operations such as its seismic networks, according to de Groot.

ShakeAlert currently costs $16 million a year to maintain, Strauss said. She added that upfront capital costs are currently $38 million, but that maintenance costs are expected to increase with the expansion in training, long-term personnel costs and a more robust infrastructure.

According to de Groot, the costs of building an EEW system are less than the losses associated with earthquake damage in California.

“The ShakeAlert system only needs to prevent 0.5 percent of losses to be cost effective,” de Groot said. “The benefits outweigh the costs in this case.”

With pilot users and projects, ShakeAlert has the potential to send phone notifications to users about incoming earthquakes by characterizing how and where each earthquake began and by sending information to affected areas.

UC Berkeley’s California Memorial Stadium resides directly above the Hayward Fault, which seismologists have said is due for a 6.8 to 7.0 magnitude earthquake soon.

A 4.4 magnitude earthquake struck Berkeley on Jan. 4. This was just below the threshold of the 4.5 magnitude earthquake needed for generating alerts, as damage often begins to occur at this magnitude, according to deGroot.

The biggest downfall to ShakeAlert is overexpectations, Strauss said. If people with an EEW system think they don’t need to be prepared or don’t need to ensure that their house is earthquake-safe, that could jeopardize a large number of people, according to Strauss.

“The early warning system is not going to be the panacea, but a tool to build resilience,” de Groot said.

Contact Mariam Zagub at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @MZagub.