The UC Berkeley Seismology Laboratory is at the epicenter of the California Earthquake Early Warning system, or EEW, a program slated to receive millions of dollars in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s first budget proposal.
The California EEW system uses a dense, statewide network of high-quality seismic sensing stations to record and transmit data about earthquakes. By identifying destructive earthquakes before they hit, the California EEW system can notify its users and give them a few seconds to prepare.
“It’s not prediction,” said Angela Chung, project scientist for the California EEW system at the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab. “We’re not telling you an earthquake is going to happen in a week or so. We’re telling you that an earthquake happened and you’re about to feel shaking.”
Newsom’s budget allocates $16.3 million for the California EEW system, out of the $172.3 million in total funding to improve the state’s emergency response programs.
Additional funding, according to operations manager at the seismology laboratory Peggy Hellweg, may go toward increasing the density of seismic stations available and improving the ability of those stations to reliably transmit data.
“We can always use more stations,” Chung said. “The more stations that we have the better our estimation of where the earthquake is and how big it is. What we don’t want to tell you is that there’s a magnitude eight earthquake when there’s not a magnitude eight earthquake.”
The California EEW system makes up part of ShakeAlert, a West Coast-wide EEW system developed and implemented by the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, in partnership with the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and several other universities.
Hellweg said researchers hope that ShakeAlert, in its completed state, will have an even denser system of seismic stations, stretching from the Mexican border to Canada. Researchers hope to improve stations’ ability to process and transmit data to deliver more alerts for all users who may be impacted by an earthquake.
A next major step for the system is finding more effective pathways for delivering alerts to the public, according to Hellweg. The city of Los Angeles developed a free app called ShakeAlertLA to notify users of an earthquake and remind them to drop, cover and hold on.
“The important thing to realize is that every second counts between when the earthquake starts and when someone gets an alert,” Hellweg said.
While broad public access to alerts is still being developed, some users, including BART, have already put ShakeAlert to work. BART implemented ShakeAlert in 2012, which allowed it to slow trains when a magnitude four earthquake struck the East Bay in the summer of 2015.
Researchers at the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab and the USGS echoed, however, that an early alert is not a substitute for being prepared.
“The public should have an earthquake plan and earthquake kit,” Chung said. “The system doesn’t make sure that you have water three days after the earthquake.”