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Pacific Northwest earthquake early warning system gets key federal funding

(Image: University of Washington)

Federal funding awarded this week will allow the installation of dozens of new seismic stations in Washington and Oregon to help build up the region’s early warning system for earthquakes.

“This investment in the PNSN represents a major increase in federal support for earthquake monitoring in the Cascadia region,” Harold Tobin, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and professor in UW’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, said in a statement from the school on the funding. “At the end of the two years of funding we anticipate having essentially doubled the number of seismic stations across our whole region that contribute to real-time earthquake early warning. This would allow for full public alerts of any potentially damaging earthquakes, across our entire region of Washington and Oregon, by the end of the two-year period.”

The U.S. Geological Survey announced the $10.4 million in funding to the network based at University of Washington to support the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system.

This award will allow for installation of 104 new seismic stations in Washington and 44 in Oregon. It will also support improved, more-sophisticated detection of earthquakes as they begin, and new efforts to engage potential users of the warnings.

The system’s alerts for the estimated size and location of earthquakes provide “seconds or minutes of warning before the more damaging ground shaking begins – enough for someone to pull off the road, stop a surgery, or find a safe place to take shelter,” the school says.

In the future, early warning systems could also help key infrastructure systems to shut down to prevent catastrophic damage and advanced building systems to brace for an earthquakes impact.

In July, a 4.6 magnitude earthquake rumbled from near Monroe early on a Friday morning, shaking buildings to the southwest around Seattle while most of Capitol Hill slept through the ride.

While Seattle is still largely unprepared for the “big one,” the city does know more about how much it would cost to retrofit its thousands of unreinforced masonry buildings. A new plan, meanwhile, will test a solar microgrid system at Capitol Hill’s Miller Community Center that is designed to give the facility greater resiliency in the event of natural disasters.

Most recently, the Hill’s Lowell Elementary School was lined up for a $260,000 seismic retrofit.

In recent years, Seattle officials, meanwhile, have shifted advice for city dwellers for being prepared for the next big quake from having enough supplies for three days to “a more realistic” seven to ten days. Kits should include one gallon of water per person per day, food, a light source, and a first aid kit.

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