You’re driving and suddenly your phone beeps, letting you know that a major earthquake has just begun off the Washington coast.
It’s telling you a shock wave will hit your location in 25 seconds. You’ve got that long to pull over and avoid going over a bridge just up the road.
This is just one way that early warning earthquake technology could translate into saving lives in the event of a disaster, experts say.
It’s too early to tell when this technology might exist, but thanks to a $2 million grant to the University of Washington, it may not be too far off.
The grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation of San Francisco will pay for 24 earthquake sensors to be installed along the Pacific Coast in Northern California, Oregon and Washington. It also will cover integrating those devices with GPS systems and creating a network to send out alerts.
The sensors — about the size of a loaf of bread — will detect large earthquakes in the Cascadia subduction zone, where two plates of the Earth’s crust meet about 50 miles off the coast.
The foundation supports environmental conservation and scientific research.
The group also is giving $2 million each to the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology to build on a similar warning system already in development in California. The three universities will collaborate with the U.S. Geological Survey on the project.
“To warn people that this (shock) wave is coming would be absolutely incredible,” said John Pennington, director of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.
It’s estimated that a starter system, in which alerts could be sent to state emergency managers and large companies, could be up and running in three years, said John Vidale, a UW professor of earth and space sciences and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.
It’s uncertain how long it would take to expand the network to the general public. A lot of work and education will be needed to prevent false alarms and panic, he said. This would require more investment than the $2 million grant, Vidale said.
“We have to have confidence and we have to have a delivery system,” he said.
The California schools are working on a system called ShakeAlert, in which a program runs on personal computers and when an alert is sent it pops up on the screen and begins a countdown, Vidale said.
About 25 of the quake sensors already are installed along the coast in the three states, but they’re currently only used for scientific research, not for warnings, he said.
Also, there are large gaps between sensors, especially in Oregon, said Bill Steele, coordinator for the seismic network.
The grant will enable UW to purchase and install 24 more of the devices. It also would allow them to connect the units to GPS devices already in place that are used for surveying and other scientific purposes, Steele said.
This will enable the sensors to combine data about the fault rupture with GPS data about ground movement to provide a more complete picture, he said.
There are many faults in the Northwest, but the work is focused on the Cascadia zone because of its potential for big quakes, seismologists said.
The Cascadia subduction zone runs about 600 miles from Northern California to British Columbia. In the subduction zone, the Juan de Fuca plate is being shoved against and underneath the North American plate. When the plates press into each other and then slip, “it’s releasing the spring all at once, if you will,” Steele said.
When this happens, the coast is expected move to the west and drop anywhere from a half-yard to 2½ yards, he said.
Scientists say the last major quake on the subduction zone, in January 1700, was likely a magnitude 9 that set off a tsunami across the Pacific and caused the Washington coast to drop substantially.
It’s estimated that a comprehensive earthquake early warning system along the West Coast would cost $150 million over five years, about $70 million of that in the Northwest, and resources need to be well-targeted, seismologists said.
An early-warning system was in place in Japan when the big earthquake hit last March. Some TV stations showed the warnings, and some computer programs came with the alert software, Vidale said. Some people benefited, but it wasn’t connected to a GPS system and sensors on shore near the epicenter did not send information to Tokyo.
Here, detecting a magnitude 7 or 7.5 quake at the southern end of the fault, off Northern California or southern Oregon, could provide as much as five minutes warning to the Seattle area, according to Vidale.
A rupture of that magnitude off the Washington coast might provide only 30 seconds of warning to the Seattle area, but Portland and Vancouver would receive longer warning.
Plus, even short notice could make a difference, seismologists said. For example, it could allow a doctor to interrupt an operation. Trains could be stopped before they reach vulnerable bridges and sensitive equipment could be shut down before suffering significant damage.
Eventually, the details of how the word would get out and to whom will work themselves out, Steele said.
Companies such as Microsoft and Google, he said, “are all going to be quite interested if we get to the point where we’re generating these warnings and will come up with very creative solutions.”
Regardless, the grant and coming work represent a big leap forward in the potential for saving lives in an earthquake, Pennington said.
“Five years or 10 years from now we’ll look back and really appreciate this moment,” he said.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see an example of the early warning system in Japan, visit tinyurl.com/7dqdj7r.