Earthquake early warning now available to Oregon public

Seismograph registering an earthquake

Earthquake early warning is coming to the Pacific Northwest.

Known as ShakeAlert, the system will be available to the public’s wireless devices in Oregon starting March 11. Depending on the point of origin of a major earthquake, a ShakeAlert can give residents critical seconds to several tens of seconds of warning to prepare for shaking.

University of Oregon researchers are playing a pivotal role in the science, development and rollout of the technology, which detects earthquakes using about 400 seismic sensors spread across the Pacific Northwest and more than a thousand up and down the West Coast. The system will eventually span the entire West Coast. It launched in California in 2019, and Washington will launch ShakeAlert in May.

West coast members of Congress have led the effort to jump-start funding for ShakeAlert. Over the last several years, Congress has provided more than $25 million per year for operations and infrastructure to the U.S. Geological Survey, which leads ShakeAlert.

Oregon recently awarded $7.5 million to the UO for the Oregon Hazards Lab to complete buildout of the ShakeAlert system in Oregon by 2023. With the funding, the lab will purchase and install sensors at an additional 83  sites and improve data communications throughout Oregon. The state previously contributed approximately $1 million to enhance Oregon’s seismic network.

ShakeAlert includes a number of university partners, including the UO and the University of Washington, which collaboratively operate the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

UO geophysicist Doug Toomey heads the UO’s ShakeAlert team. Below, he answers questions about the launch and the new alerts.

Q: What is happening March 11 when ShakeAlert is released to the public?

A: March 11 is the 10-year anniversary of the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan and also the first day that Oregonians will be able to receive wireless earthquake early warnings, or ShakeAlerts. This is a monumental achievement for the West Coast of the United States, for the state of Oregon, and for the many individuals and groups that are contributing to Oregon’s resilience.

Q: How will the public be notified in the event of an earthquake?

A: The public will receive alerts by all available means, with the primary mechanism in the near future being alerts delivered by wireless devices, such as phones. ShakeAlerts will be transmitted to phones by the Wireless Emergency Alert system as well as apps that can be downloaded. The wireless system exists on all smartphones, and the public may know this as the Amber Alert system.

Provided users have not turned off this alerting mechanism, they can receive ShakeAlerts via wireless alerts.

Q: Are there apps available for ShakeAlerts?

A: The public should also consider downloading and installing apps, and when doing so they should look for those that say “Powered by ShakeAlert.” Android users will also benefit from ShakeAlerts that are integrated into that operating system. It is perfectly fine to have multiple delivery mechanisms on a wireless device. In fact, it may be preferable since alerting times can vary depending on the mechanism.

Q: In what other ways could ShakeAlerts issue warnings?

A: In addition to wireless devices, ShakeAlerts can be delivered by other means, for example sirens, road signs, stoplights at bridges, emergency broadcasts and other methods. For Oregonians to benefit from these diverse alerting mechanisms it is important that the system be adopted and embraced by the public and private sectors, since this will accelerate development of novel and effective alerting technologies.

Q: A few seconds doesn’t seem like much. How can that be beneficial?

A: ShakeAlert can protect the public by giving them precious seconds or tens of seconds of warning before strong shaking arrives from an earthquake. Studies show that when people are caught unaware by an earthquake or natural hazard, their ‘lizard brain’ takes over and they often take actions that are not safe. For example, panicking or running can lead to injuries due to falling or being hit by debris. By giving forewarning of imminent shaking via a ShakeAlert, the public can gather themselves and take protective action.

Q: What should a person do when they receive a ShakeAlert?

A: When someone receives a ShakeAlert they should move to a safe location and duck, cover and hold on to something until the shaking is complete.

At present, ShakeAlerts will warn that an earthquake has occurred and that shaking is expected. The public must be aware that shaking could begin immediately, the next few seconds or perhaps in tens of seconds. Given the range of alerting times, the recommended action is to find a safe spot to duck, cover and hold on.

Q: What can ShakeAlert do to save lives and mitigate damage to critical infrastructure?

A: For several years now the ShakeAlert system has been delivering alerts so that stakeholders could evaluate how to protect critical infrastructure, including water and power utilities and transportation infrastructure.

For example, in San Francisco the Bay Area Rapid Transit system has been slowing trains in response to ShakeAlerts delivered in California. In the Pacific Northwest, water utilities are installing devices that could shut water valves in response to a ShakeAlert, thus safeguarding precious drinking water during and after an event.

Similarly, power utilities such as the Eugene Water and Electric Board are looking at turning off power-generation facilities, such as those at Carmen Smith Reservoir, so that large and expensive turbines are not spinning when strong shaking arrives. Similarly, power distribution facilities, like the Central Lincoln Public Utilities District, are exploring how ShakeAlerts can protect their infrastructure and personnel. 

As the ShakeAlert system becomes part of the earthquake culture in the Pacific Northwest, I think we will see many novel lifesaving and infrastructure-saving practices develop over the next several years.

What they’re saying

“A catastrophic earthquake in the Pacific Northwest is not hypothetical. It is a not a question of if an earthquake will happen. It is a question of when. In an earthquake, every second counts. Thanks to the incredible work of the University of Oregon and other West Coast universities, we now have an early warning system that will give people extra seconds to save lives, avoid or reduce injury and mitigate infrastructure damage during a major earthquake.”

—Peter DeFazio, U.S. Representative from Oregon

“If there’s anything we’ve learned from this pandemic and last year’s catastrophic wildfires, it’s the importance of trusting science and preparing for emergencies before they strike. Whether it’s wildfires or The Big One, I will continue to fight for the resources Oregonians need to stay safe.”

—Jeff Merkley, U.S. Senator from Oregon

“When the devastating earthquake hits, our state needs a response that equips all Oregonians with valuable minutes and seconds to protect themselves. I’m proud to have worked with colleagues to secure the funding for ShakeAlert.”

—Ron Wyden, U.S. Senator from Oregon