Promoting Earthquake Readiness

Harvey V. Fineberg | Washington Monthly | July 1, 2016

In Oregon, Washington State and California, an early warning system helps citizens and officials better prepare for and respond to earthquakes.

In the early morning hours on August 24, 2014, scientists at UC Berkeley received a “ShakeAlert” – an alarm providing warning of a pending earthquake. Five seconds later, the city of Napa felt a magnitude 6.0 earthquake. That five-second warning was an early success for a broader goal: the creation of an earthquake early warning system that can communicate the size, extent and timing of imminent earthquakes on the West Coast.

People in California, Oregon and Washington have come to accept that earthquakes happen. This general expectation, though, is no substitute for the ability to take immediate action when an earthquake is imminent. Unlike tornadoes and hurricanes, earthquakes give no visual signal of their approach. Yet, it is possible to detect the start of an earthquake and provide a warning.

Like the difference between thunder and lightning, earthquakes travel at the speed of sound, and warnings can be sent at the speed of light. Moreover, other earthquake-prone countries are demonstrating that earthquake detection and early warning systems are feasible. Like California, Oregon and Washington, these countries face heightened risk of quakes, but unlike the United States, they have established working warning systems that use a network of seismic sensors to relay a warning signal with the size of the expected earthquake to public safety organizations, businesses and schools...