University expands its role in earthquake early warning system

Map shows earthquake monitoring locatioins

The University of Oregon will soon be playing an active role in preparing West Coast residents for the next magnitude 9 earthquake.

Working in cooperation with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, the UO will maintain 15 seismometers previously owned by the National Science Foundation. The seismic network is a cooperative between the UO and the University of Washington, and is a key player in the development and testing of a West Coast earthquake early warning system.

The recent passage of Oregon Senate Bill 5543, which was signed March 30 by Gov. Kate Brown, paved the way for the state of Oregon to acquire the seismometers with a one-time appropriation of $670,000.

Located throughout Oregon, the newly purchased seismometers will allow for the expansion in the number of reporting stations in the state, particularly in the lightly covered southwest region. Douglas Toomey, a professor of geosciences in the Department of Geological Sciences, has been an active proponent of the legislation and the development of a West Coast early warning system. He serves as principal investigator of the Oregon component of the PNSN.

Douglas Toomey“The new sensors will allow us to take a more active role in recording and analyzing data and helping deliver alerts,” Toomey said. “We use data from PNSN to monitor earthquake and volcanic hazards in the Pacific Northwest and also to conduct our scientific research.”

Prior to the passage of SB 5543, Toomey organized a dozen other scientists in developing a consensus statement in support of the measure. A magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami are a virtual inevitability for the Pacific Northwest, the scientists say, and an early warning system offers the best way to save lives, protect businesses and facilitate a more rapid recovery for local communities, the federal government and the economy as a whole.

The newly acquired seismometers are part of the UO’s Cascadia Initiative, a four-year, $30 million project, funded by the National Science Foundation to study the Cascadia Subduction Zone — the most likely source of devastating earthquakes. The PNSN-adopted sites will provide enhanced monitoring of the subduction zone and offer an early warning of up to three minutes to Portland residents and two minutes to Eugene residents.

Additionally, scientists say, the sites will amplify research capabilities and enhance funding opportunities for Northwest scientists. They will also provide opportunities for undergraduate students and graduate students to service and maintain sites, perform daily inspection of data and participate in laboratory research projects, Toomey said.

SB 5543 originated as a proposal by state Rep. Nancy Nathanson. U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio supported that effort by requesting former Gov. John Kitzhaber in May 2014 to include funds in his budget.

On the national level, legislators are seeking additional federal support. A group of congressional members from Oregon, California and Washington recently sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee asking for the approval of $16.1 million in funding for FY2016 to continue to implement a West Coast earthquake early warning system.