New system will warn of big quakes – but not in Alaska

Damage from the recent 7.1 earthquake in Southcentral Alaska.(Jenny Neyman/ KDLL)
Damage from the recent 7.1 earthquake in Southcentral Alaska.(Jenny Neyman/ KDLL)

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell today announced the start of an earthquake early warning system called Shake Alert. It’s in beta testing now, but Jewell says soon West Coast residents will be able to participate in a prototype that will send alerts to their cell phones a few seconds to a few minutes before a big quake strikes. But the warnings won’t cover Alaska.

Japan already has an earthquake warning system. So do China and Turkey. But California Congressman Adam Schiff says he deployed the technology first.

“I was the original early earthquake warning system,” he deadpanned, at a White House earthquake summit today. “I gave accurate and precise information about when an earthquake was about to hit, and it was proved to be fully accurate. I did this well before any country employed this kind of system.”

Here was Schiff’s technique, performed once, in the 1990s: He was in L.A., on the phone with his brother, who was in a different part of the city.

“And I said, ‘Whoa. Did you feel that?’” the congressman said. “And he said, ‘What?’ And then he said, ‘whoa. ‘”

Actually, that’s kind of how earthquake early warning works. Sensors would detect an earthquake near the epicenter, prompting a warning message. If that message can travel to someone in the path of the earthquake faster than the wave of energy rippling through the earth, that person would have an early warning.

How early depends on how far you are from the point of detection, among other factors.

Secretary Jewell says the system will do more than send life-saving cell phone alerts to individuals.

“But also (it would signal) elevators to stop and open at a floor. Fire station doors to open, so those first responders can get out. Trains to stop or slow down before they get into harm’s way,” she said. “All of these basic things will be facilitated by this work that’s going on for Shake Alert”

Shake Alert is the name of the prototype system developed for California, Oregon and Washington, which will cost an estimated $16 million a year to run. A lot of the work was done at universities, but the U.S. Geological Survey is running it. Jewell at least mentioned Alaska at the White House conference.

“I did ask my team: Well, where’s Alaska? Alaska is very earthquake prone,” she said. “They said, ‘We’d love to have a partnership with the University of Alaska. Fairbanks, Anchorage, whomever.’”

It wasn’t clear what it would take to get that partnership. In a phone call afterward, Jewell said it would require some investment.

“There’s an incremental cost to extending it to the state of Alaska. That would need to be covered somehow,” she said. “It could be federal money, state money, private money, a combination thereof.”

Jewell did not know what the cost would be, and she said there’s nothing for an Alaska extension in the budget the administration is about to release. But she said, installing the equipment and software is only part of it. The public and the parties that operate infrastructure would have to be prepared to make use of the warning, too.

John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, sees few barriers to extending the system.

“Let’s see, Alaska is certainly ideal for such a system,” he said. “And there are a lot of seismometers up there. It’s really a matter of bringing the software and the 24-hour attention to the system. So it’s probably one of the four or five next places in line.”

State Seismologist Michael West sees it differently.

“Alaska’s a long ways away from any sort of earthquake early warning system,” he said. “For earthquake early warning to be successful you need to build it on top of — this is an add-on — to a strong, robust earthquake monitoring system. At present, the earthquake monitoring system in Alaska, in my opinion does not have a strong enough foundation on which we could build earthquake early warning, at least not in a short time frame.”

West says among other things, the state needs fast, reliable data communication networks that can, well, survive an earthquake, and the damage that comes with them, like power outtages. And he says, it needs more sensors. He’s hoping the state can keep an array of some 200 seismographic stations now going into the state as part of a National Science Foundation project.

“Well, Alaska is a little different than the Lower 48, in that a tremendous expense and energy and a lot of brain power is going into installing these sites, in places where we’ve never had good seismic recordings.”

West says it’s a $40 million endeavor and the stations are only intended to be in Alaska for about five years.

“To me it seems like a tremendous loss for that equipment to move on somewhere else, when frankly we could assume ownership and operate it in situ, in place, for a fraction of the cost of what it would take to actually install it from scratch.”

West though, says the sensors are gathering information for longer term science. He says it would be a significant technical undertaking to patch them into the state’s earthquake monitoring system, let alone harness them for an early warning network.




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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at