Oregon Gov. Kate Brown aims $12 million for earthquake early warning system

SALEM – Every second of warning matters when a major earthquake is about to rumble.

Seconds provide enough time for school children to shelter under desks, traffic to clear from bridges and fire departments to raise their garage doors, said University of Oregon Prof. Doug Toomey. That's why he and other researchers around the West have been working on setting up an earthquake early warning system. The looming danger of a massive magnitude 9 Cascadia subduction zone earthquake off the Oregon Coast adds urgency to their work.

"For the public it's going to give them advance warning of strong shaking so they can take protective action," Toomey said. "In the case of a Cascadia earthquake, they'll get tens of seconds to many tens of seconds of early warning here in Eugene, and so they can duck, cover and hold. Studies show that when people are caught unaware in earthquakes, they panic and that leads to more casualties than necessary."

The goal is to have the statewide early earthquake warning system up and operational by 2023, according Gov. Kate Brown's office. Early warning would come over a network of microwave towers passing data collected by an array of seismometers and GPS sensors, which would detect the first ripples of earthquakes.

The state also could use the system to warn of wildfires, Toomey said. The same microwave towers also could pass images from high-definition cameras scanning forests for puffs of smoke.

Brown included $12 million for an earthquake early warning system in her proposed budget this fall. Bonds would fund the system, so Oregon lawmakers likely won't vote on it until summer.

"When the next Cascadia subduction zone earthquake strikes the Pacific Northwest, Oregon will face the greatest challenge of our lifetimes," Brown said in a statement. "Oregon's buildings, transportation network, utilities, and population are underprepared for such an event, and we must accelerate our preparations. That is why funding for an earthquake early warning system in my budget is so critical."

The early warning system would be responding to earthquakes rather than predicting them. Scientists can't accurately predict earthquakes — yet.

But researchers have learned that the initial waves of an earthquake move rapidly with little shaking. Depending on the magnitude of the earthquake and the distance of a sensor from where the temblor begins, the initial ripples might give seconds to minutes of advance warning before the damaging waves arrive.

Spring Break Quake of 1993 was literally a wake-up call

Spring Break Quake of 1993 was literally a wake-up call

At 5:34 a.m. on March 25, 1993, one of the stronger earthquakes to hit the area in years jolted residents from Salem to Portland awake.

How that scientific data will go from research computers to the public and emergency agencies is still being worked out. Toomey said the early warning system might trigger cell phone alerts and community sirens.

Mexico and Japan created early warning systems after massive quakes struck, including a magnitude 8 earthquake in Mexico City in 1985 and a magnitude 6.9 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, in 1995.

"These other countries have had them for decades," Toomey said. "It's a proven science. It's proven effective."

Two plates of the Earth's crust meet under the Pacific Ocean about 40 miles off the Oregon Coast. One of the plates is sliding under the other — the Cascadia subduction zone — building up pressure that scientists say will eventually release in the form of a massive earthquake, potentially one of the most powerful earthquakes every recorded. There's a 25 to 40 percent chance of a magnitude 9 earthquake in the next 50 years, Toomey said. So the race is on to be prepared.

Oregon's early warning earthquake system would be part of ShakeAlert, a system covering the West Coast. The system would be built upon an existing network of sensors operated by the UO, the University of Washington, University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology.

Specifically, the $12 million would cover the cost of completing Oregon's network of more than 100 sensors, Toomey said. The entire ShakeAlert system across the West Coast will cost $28 million annually to maintain, which he said the U.S. Geological Survey is set to pay.

"We have to be over 75 percent complete before we can start providing alerts to the public," Toomey said. "We're about 50 percent complete right now in the state and that's why the governor's budget is important. It would allow us to complete that network."

Shaking in the Cascadia earthquake might last as long as five minutes, said Leland O'Discoll, ShakeAlert project manager and a seismic field technician at the UO. So being able to brace for the earthquake will be invaluable.

How to react to the early warning of a pending earthquake will depend on what someone is doing at the time, but the general advice from experts is to duck, cover and hold: drop to the ground, take cover under a sturdy table or desk and then hold on until the shaking stops.

An earthquake early warning system reduces losses in the moment, O'Discoll said, and accelerates recovery after the event because damage is reduced.

Setting up such a system would signal a shift in how Oregonians respond to a major natural disaster. The response would begin before the earthquake strikes, said Linda Cook, emergency manager for Lane County. An alert would allow factories to shut down and trains to slow down, potentially using automated systems.

"Granted, it's only seconds to minutes of advance warning," Cook said, "but seconds to minutes can make a big difference."

Florence on the Oregon Coast sits in harm's way of a Cascadia earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Like Cook, Megan Messmer, a project manager for Florence, said advance warning would be valuable. She said it would lower the effects of secondary disasters triggered by an earthquake.

Toomey said that a common misconception about a Cascadia earthquake is that coastal cities would be immediately rocked by shaking. But the temblor would likely begin on the far southern end, off California, or the northern end, off Canada.

With ShakeAlert, a city such as Florence near the center of the subduction zone might have as much as a couple of minutes of warning when the major earthquake strikes.

"Any work that the state does to help move us forward (with a warning system) will be helpful in those types of disasters," she said, "Because we as an individual city don't have those resources or even ability to do that large scale or technical of a project."

– Dylan Darling | Eugene Register-Guard