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The Government Is Accelerating Plans for the West Coast's Earthquake Warning System

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke directed federal agencies to smooth the way for installing seismic sensors out west.
A sign is posted warning of earthquake damage to the road from seismic activity at the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island on May 17th, 2018, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii.

A sign is posted warning of earthquake damage to the road from seismic activity at the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island on May 17th, 2018, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has ordered federal agencies to identify and remove regulation that is slowing down the deployment of a national earthquake warning system. But regulatory roadblocks aren't the only issue the system, called ShakeAlert, is facing.

The United States Geological Survey and multiple universities have partnered to work on the seismic alert system since 2006. It's been rolling out to small groups and pilot programs this year, including a successful test with Bay Area Rapid Transit this week. But today, the network is only about half complete, and it's especially lacking in places like Portland and Seattle—cities that aren't used to seismic activity the way the California coast is, but are threatened by an impending earthquake.

Zinke tweeted that he's accelerating the placement of sensors because "many scientists predict the West Coast is due for a major earthquake." People living in the Pacific Northwest have felt growing urgency about seismic preparation in the last few years. Thousands of people read Kathryn Schulz's 2015 New Yorker article "The Really Big One," which described an overdue catastrophic earthquake in the Cascadia region —and how ill-prepared that region is for it. It won Schulz a Pulitzer Prize and inspired fear in coastal Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia.

The technology to detect earthquakes before they hit has been available for decades. When a quake begins, it sends out multiple kinds of seismic waves. Most of the damage comes from S-waves and surface waves, but their faster-moving counterparts, P-waves, arrive first and are rarely felt. Seismic sensors can detect these P-waves and warn people about the more destructive shaking to come seconds or even minutes before it hits them.

Japan, Mexico, China, Turkey, and other countries have implemented early warning systems, mostly after devastating disasters like the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan or the 1985 Mexico City quake. Japan's system, the most advanced in the world, allows the government to send messages to phones ahead of the shaking. During the 2011 Tohoku magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the one that triggered a tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, that early warning system stopped trains and allowed people precious tsunami evacuation time.

Japan launched its system in 2007—but the U.S. only began work on ShakeAlert in 2006. An effective, complete system would contain over 1,600 seismic sensors all across the coast, placed six to 12 miles apart. Right now, the USGS has about 53 percent of the network installed, according to Bob deGroot, ShakeAlert's communications coordinator. And the network is especially spotty in rural areas and around Portland and Seattle.

That's the rationale Zinke's given for the order, which covers lands managed by Department of Interior agencies across the West Coast and in Hawaii. During a public lecture in January, Douglas Given, the USGS Earthquake Early Warning Coordinator, identified the federal environmental impact reports needed to install the sensors as a major hurdle to completing the system. Five federal agencies manage roughly half of the land in Oregon and California and more than a quarter in Washington. Zinke told the three agencies within his department (the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service) to identify and streamline regulations that slow the implementation of the system on the lands they manage.

"Secretary Zinke made a proactive move—a very important step," deGroot says. "I think it will increase the level of connection, cooperation, and collaboration. And it really brings to the fore the need to get this system moving."

Those sensors are useless unless we can broadcast their results, though, so the complete early warning system would require massive upgrades to telecommunication relays, further development of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (the system that sent you a message from the president last week), and a central command center to control alerts. The USGS and its partners also need to figure out how to get the system to reach the estimated 5 percent of adults without a cell phone and the areas of the country that lack any cell phone service.

Above all, the alert system has to get much, much faster. Right now, ShakeAlert can send a warning to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers alerts through IPAWS, in five seconds, and it takes FEMA up to seven seconds more to communicate with the major cell service providers—Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. The real time-suck comes from how long it takes wireless carriers to send an alert from cell towers to phones—over 10 more seconds. That's a lot of wasted time before a catastrophic disaster, and, with earthquakes, there aren't many seconds to spare.

But early warning, even if it's just a few seconds, allows for a number of lifesaving actions: opening elevator doors, stopping trains, halting surgeries, putting down heavy items, shutting down gas lines, evacuating unsafe buildings, and taking shelter.