ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system goes live in Washington state — here’s how it works

A team from the UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network installs a new solar panel array at a seismic monitoring site in Enumclaw, Wash., in April. The seismometer, one of hundreds that provide data for ShakeAlert, is in the hole in the foreground. A trench brings cables to the newly installed solar panels, on the right, that power the system, and an aluminum box containing electronics that digitize and transmit the seismic data. (University of Washington Photo)

The news: ShakeAlert, an automated system designed to warn people that an earthquake has occurred and shaking is imminent, is being activated in Washington state today to complete a West Coast rollout of the technology.

A ShakeAlert warning on a smartphone.

How it works: The alert system, operated by the U.S Geological Survey in cooperation with the University of Washington-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, does not predict earthquakes before they happen, but is designed to rapidly detect ones that have already begun. Ground motion sensors near the earthquake feel the ground shaking and relay that information to a data processing center. The precise location of the quake is determined and ShakeAlert algorithms quickly estimate the strength and areas that will likely feel shaking.

What you’ll see: People connected to the Wireless Emergency Alert system (the same system that produces AMBER alerts), will now get earthquake alerts for events of magnitude 5 or greater, using a similar interface, the UW reported. The smartphone alert will advise people to drop, cover and hold. Warning times range from a few seconds to tens of seconds depending on your distance to the epicenter.

Android phone users will get an alert built into the phone’s operating system. There is no downloadable app, but you can learn more about how to get alerts here.

They said it: Project leaders and representatives held a virtual news conference on Tuesday to discuss the system and its benefits. Among those involved:

  • Harold Tobin, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and professor of Earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, said the system is not earthquake prediction, but rather a chance to receive a small amount of warning. “It can allow you enough time to gather your thoughts,” Tobin said. “People who feel the shaking tend to freeze up. Knowing it’s coming could change that.”
  • Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, called ShakeAlert “an example of smart community technology” and said she has been pushing for $28.6 million in additional funding from Congress for fiscal year 2022.
  • Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Port Angeles, was raised in and represents the northwestern most region of the state. “The threat of an earthquake and the potential of a tsunami that comes with it looms large in our lives,” Kilmer said. “Even a handful of seconds of warning could be the difference between life and death. This matters.”

Where else is it used?: ShakeAlert, which is similar to existing early warning systems in Mexico and Japan, began sending alerts in California in 2019 and in Oregon in March 2021.

(Click to enlarge)

Big threat: Washington state has the second largest earthquake risk, behind California, of all 50 states. With Washington now online, the system will issue warnings to millions more people at risk from the largest possible earthquake in the lower 48 states — a rupture of the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone. The 700-mile fault runs from California’s Cape Mendocino to the tip of Canada’s Vancouver Island.

Other uses for system: The USGS partners with agencies to turn the information into public alerts, such as through notifications in smartphone apps and announcements on PA systems. Other technical partners can use the ShakeAlert data to take automated action such as:

  • Slowing trains to prevent derailment.
  • Stopping elevators at the nearest floor and opening their doors.
  • Opening firehouse doors so they are not stuck shut.
  • Throttling water utility valves to prevent emptying of reservoirs.
  • Activating backup generators at hospitals to ensure continued service.

More work to do: The sensor network is only about 65% complete for Washington state, with about 230 seismic stations and around 100 more to add. Oregon has some 155 stations providing data. The USGS and state and university partners will be adding more seismometers to the network through late 2025 to further enhance the system’s capability. The UW’s Tobin also said that they will continue to improve the algorithm for better assurance that ShakeAlert will be accurate and fast.

Happy #ShakeAlert Launch Day, Washington! We'll let you know when the system is live.

There will be NO test today so you will NOT be notified when it goes live (except by tweet from us & the media).

Want to know how it all works? @IRIS_EPO explains here

— WA Emergency Management ???? (@waEMD) May 4, 2021

Science Earthquake Earthquake sensors Pacific northwest seismic network Shakealert U.s. geological survey University of washington