Toomey on the move as UO role grows in quake warning effort

Doug Toomey
Doug Toomey

It's a slow rumble, a small step forward, in efforts to grow an early warning system for earthquakes along the West Coast. For the University of Oregon, meetings in the next two weeks in Seattle and Washington, D.C., represent a growing involvement.

The UO's Douglas Toomey, a professor of geosciences in the Department of Geological Sciences, will be in Seattle for a Feb. 17 workshop at the University of Washington where the Northwest Seismic Network will demonstrate a software package, still in beta mode, and detail its possible use in emergency planning in the region.

Toomey then travels to the nation's capital for a series of meetings in which West Coast seismologists will meet with their respective U.S. representatives, senators and agency staff members to thank them for their initial $5 million commitment — and remind them that much more is needed to create an effective warning system.

A prototype being shown in Seattle is based on a tool developed and tested in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was shared last week with representatives of such companies as Boeing and Microsoft as well as Seattle-area mass transit agencies, hospitals and utilities. The coming workshop aims to generate interest in adopting and enhancing the prototype.

The technology eventually could land as apps on smart phones that can be activated to warn users how much time they have before they will feel an earthquake, Toomey said. Such technology is being designed to provide time to evacuate buildings and allow people to take precautions. With the likelihood of a projected 9.0 Cascadia earthquake growing with each passing year, time is of the essence, he said.

Until recently, the UO has mostly just provided technical assistance for the seismic network, Toomey said. A $670,000 proposal in the governor's budget will allow the UO to add additional sensors, particularly in the lightly covered southwest portion of the state, to strengthen earthquake-monitoring capabilities.

"We've been contributing to the network but nowhere near the level that UW Seattle has been doing for a long time," Toomey said. "Fortunately, our role is growing rapidly. In the past year or so we've made great strides at the federal and state levels for investing in earthquake early warning. These investments are a good start, but what we have now is far from complete. We hope to further expand the system and demonstrate its usefulness to the public."

Until sufficient numbers of sensors are in place and staffing levels are realized, Toomey said, a big earthquake could knock out most of the existing communications system and make it difficult to transmit alerts.

"We are looking toward data centers with personnel in both Seattle and Eugene and linked up with UC Berkeley and Caltech, so the entire West Coast would be connected," Toomey said. "We want backups in the system, so if an earthquake takes out Berkeley's center there will be redundancy. We're looking to build up Oregon to have a greater density of reporting stations than currently exist, which would give us a much more active role in recording and analyzing data and helping deliver the alerts."

The move toward a West Coast earthquake early warning system is being slowly developed with federal support through the U.S. Geological Survey. In the past UW, UC Berkeley and Caltech had received funding from the Moore Foundation to develop the prototype.

"In due course toward adding federal support it was realized they needed greater involvement from the UO," Toomey said.

In Washington, D.C, Toomey and UO colleagues will meet with senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and with representatives Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Suzanne Bonamici.

"Our primary message is, 'Thanks for your support, but we still have a long way to go,'" he said.

—By Jim Barlow, Public Affairs Communications