The West coast university teams chasing earthquakes

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West coast universities are upgrading the new ShakeAlert earthquake warning system.

By U2B Staff 

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West Coast universities got a boost in funding last week after several received federal grants to improve the earthquake early warning system along the tectonically active shoreline.

In Washington State, both the University of Washington and Central Washington University (CWU) have been tasked with upgrading the new ShakeAlert earthquake warning system. While it doesn’t predict earthquakes, the system is able to send text messages to residents warning them when the tremors will reach them after the earthquake has started.

It does this by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, what geologists call the Primary or P wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, ShakeAlert first estimates the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations.


The further away they are from the epicentre, the longer people have before the shaking starts. While this may only be 30 to 40 seconds, it gives people the opportunity to seek cover, turn off water and gas, and find somewhere safe.

In the first round of funding, the University of Washington is expected to receive almost US$3,750,000 from the US , which will be used to add another 104 seismometers in the state to create better warnings.

The system will be introducing Global Positioning Stations (GPS) to measure the deformation of the land in a major west coast earthquake. This is where CWU comes in.

The university operates a network of some 2,000 GPS sites and will use its over US$700,000 grant to begin integrating GPS technology into the ShakeAlert system for the states of Washington, Oregon, and California.

Further south, the University of Nevada is also getting US$1 million from the United States Geological Survey to upgrade obsolete seismic sensors in Death Valley and the Mammoth and Bishop areas. They are also expanding the networks near Lake Tahoe where the cola and severe winters can damage equipment.

While all of these places are not on the main Californian San Andreas fault line, they are still highly vulnerable to quakes. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Death Valley fault system, which stretches through the famous national park, is capable of generating a quake of roughly magnitude 7.8.


Big cities like Las Vegas and Reno are at risk of serious damage in the event of a quake. The Reno area has a seismic risk that approaches that of the San Francisco Bay Area; the Carson Valley just south of Reno is capable of producing a quake as large as magnitude 7.4; just east of Las Vegas is a fault that can produce an earthquake as large as magnitude 6.7.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated the average annualised loss from earthquakes nationwide is US$6.1 billion, with 73 percent of that coming from Washington, Oregon, and California.

US$3.7 billion of that is from California alone. The state is particularly vulnerable with a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake in the next 30 years.