Government officials and lawmakers discussed ways to strengthen the ability to detect earthquakes before they wreak havoc at an event in Washington, D.C.

The Earthquake Resilience Summit emphasized an “all hands on deck” approach to help keep vulnerable populations safe during a major earthquake. U.S. Geological Survey Director Suzette Kimball and seismologist Lucy Jones spoke of advances in the field of earthquake early warning systems during the event, which took place on 2 February.

President Obama signed the Executive Order, Establishing a Federal Earthquake Risk Management Standard, on the day of the summit, “to improve the Nation’s resilience to earthquakes.” The summit took place almost exactly 316 years after the Cascadia earthquake, which was the last major earthquake to rattle the Pacific Northwest.

Preparing for “The Next Big One”

Seismologists are often quick to point out that they cannot predict when earthquakes will occur, but can suggest where they will likely happen based on geologic evidence like fault lines.

Fault lines result when two chunks of Earth move against each other – the movement unleashes energy that leads to an earthquake. One of the most well known faults is the San Andreas Fault, which runs almost the entire length of California. The San Andreas gained much of its fame, or notoriety, when it ruptured 110 years ago in 1906. The epicenter, where the fault began to rupture, was just off the coast of Northern California. The intense shaking caused deadly infrastructure failures and fires in San Francisco, killing over 3,000 people and destroying most of the city.

Before the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco was five times the size of Los Angeles, Lucy Jones, a seismologist with the USGS and research associate at Caltech, said during the summit. Now, Los Angeles is five times the size of San Francisco and growing – San Francisco never really regained the position it had before the earthquake, Jones said.

Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior and Seattle native, said that people are increasingly flocking to cities near active fault lines, like Portland, Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. The Cascadia Fault stretches from Vancouver Island to Northern California and could produce a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which would be larger than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

It’s important to teach students how to prepare for earthquakes in school, Jewell said, and engage citizens on the importance of retrofitting old houses and building new houses to comply with the newest earthquake standards.

When a building is damaged in an earthquake it’s not just about the building, Jones said. The building is part of a complex system of systems that provide homes and workplaces. Without them, regions can plunge into depression, she said.

Earthquake early warning systems

To help West Coast societies brace for tremors, the USGS is developing an earthquake early warning system called Shake Alert, which detects an earthquake a few seconds after it begins, calculates how much the ground will likely shake, and sends out warnings to people so they can get out of harm’s way. The warning can arrive a few seconds to a few tens of seconds before the shaking reaches people, depending on how far people are from the epicenter of the earthquake.

Shake Alert can help slow and stop trains, prevent cars from entering bridges and tunnels, and automatically shut down and isolate industrial systems.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, has invested close to a billion dollars in earthquake retrofits including an earthquake early warning system, John McPartland, a district director of the BART system, said at the summit. With the BART’s warning system, conductors can slow a train from 70 miles per hour to 10 mph with 20 seconds of warning. Any train going less than 70 mph would come to a dead stop, McPartland said.

The BART system moves around 400,000 passengers each day. If a major earthquake were to hit, the area wouldn’t have enough hospital beds to accommodate a train catastrophe, McPartland said, heightening the need for an early warning system.

BART’s earthquake early warning system and USGS’s Shake Alert rely on the same technology in cell phones that count people’s steps. Instead of measuring steps, however, the systems measure seismic waves.

After more than a decade of research and development, the USGS recently achieved a milestone with a prototype of the Shake Alert system, Kimball said during the summit. “We want the Shake Alert system in place before the next major earthquake disaster,” Kimball said.

A beta version of Shake Alert was deployed on 1 February 2016 – the beta version allows users to develop and deploy pilot programs that can detect tremors in areas with sufficient station coverage. The USGS and U.S. Forest Service are working together to streamline the permitting process for seismic monitoring stations in order to get the stations where they’re needed most.

Several major faults are due or overdue for a major earthquake on the west coast, Kimball said. A combined effort among academia, states, communities, and other sectors have successfully worked together to ensure Shake Alert can do its job. “Earthquake early warning is coming,” Kimball said.

States, corporations, and organizations are also committed to implementing earthquake early warning systems. For example, Oregon recently created a to-be-filled State Resilience Officer position to take on earthquake early warning as a first order of business; Puget Sound Energy is granting $100,000 to the University of Washington Pacific Northwest Seismic Network to help the universities better detect seismic waves; and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation is providing $3.6 million in grants to advance the Shake Alert system.

Earthquake policy

In addition to Sally Jewell and other agency representatives, John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, spoke at the event to promote earthquake early warning systems.

The President’s Executive Order to establish a federal earthquake risk management standard directs the government to “continue to take proactive steps to enhance the resilience of buildings that are owned, leased, financed, or regulated by the Federal Government.” The order emphasizes the need to incorporate the most modern earthquake safety precautions into building retrofits and new construction and puts the National Institute of Standards and Technology in charge of interpreting and implementing earthquake safety guidelines to the federal departments and agencies, among other directives.

Senators and Representatives from the west coast also shared words of encouragement at the event. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Adam Schiff (D-CA), and Derek Kilmer (D-WA) spoke on the importance of earthquake early warning systems and associated science policy to move implementation forward.

Merkley said that he likes being part of the federal side of the multi-sector partnership to implement warning systems and understands the need to magnify the conversation about earthquake threats and preparation.

The conversation is not new – the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing to discuss earthquake early warning in June of 2014. Representatives listened to witnesses talk about warning systems used in other countries, like Japan and Mexico, and discussed the cost benefits of implementing a national warning system in the U.S.

More recently, in July of last year, DeFazio introduced a bill to fund earthquake early warning systems for the Pacific Northwest. “A catastrophic earthquake is not hypothetical. It is a not a question of if an earthquake will happen. It is a question of when,” DeFazio said. The legislation would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide funding for an earthquake early warning system. “The federal government needs to start taking this threat seriously and this bill is a needed first step,” DeFazio said.

The President’s Budget Request for FY2017 includes $8.2 million for USGS to continue working on the Earthquake Early Warning System, which is the same level of funding it had last year.

Right after earthquakes is when we want our government to be effective, Jones said. “We cannot lose government when we need it the most.”

By Elizabeth Goldbaum, GSA Science Policy Fellow