The next time a significant earthquake hits in Washington or Oregon, a handful of computers in offices around the region will emit a blaring siren, then a robotic voice will pronounce: “Earthquake. Earthquake. Shaking to begin in… 15 seconds.”
The software, implemented by the University of Washington-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network based on a California tool, is the region’s first warning system for incoming earthquakes. A prototype was shared this week with a group of people from outside the research community.
The trial group includes Boeing, Microsoft, Sound Transit, Providence Hospital and other hospitals, transportation agencies, utilities and emergency managers. Members will meet Tuesday, Feb. 17, on the UW campus for a workshop to introduce the system and discuss its potential for emergency planning and response in the region, which spans the coastal area from Northern California to southern British Columbia.
“We have found capable partners that will give us good feedback, but we also value diversity,” said John Vidale, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences and director of the seismic network, which includes the UW and the University of Oregon and is overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey.
“The test group is a cross-section of our region’s economy so we can find the best ways of reducing losses from the next earthquake.”
In Japan, similar earthquake alerts have been used to slow bullet trains to prevent derailment, trigger automated earthquake and tsunami alarms in schools, and shut down expensive manufacturing equipment to avoid damage due to shaking.
|The seismometers sense the early P waves, and
send warning of the more destructive S waves
Here, some 240 seismometers installed throughout Washington and Oregon currently detect vibrations and send readings to a computer at the UW, where the regional seismic network creates an automated report within about 10 minutes after any seismic event.
The new early warning system being tested will create an automated alert as quickly as four seconds after a quake’s fast-moving but harmless P wave is first detected. Depending on the geography, earthquake size and distance to the user, that could mean a few seconds to more than a minute’s warning before people would start to feel the ground-shaking S waves.
Over the coming months, the researchers expect they will run into problems with missed events or having a single event trigger multiple alerts. They hope to work out these kinks for the next year or so, while institutions begin to think about how they might integrate the alerts into their emergency planning.