Secretary Jewell Announces Next Phase of ‘ShakeAlert’ Early Earthquake Warning System at White House Summit

President Obama signs Executive Order to increase U.S. building resilience from earthquakes

Last edited 09/29/2021

Date: February 2, 2016

WASHINGTON – As part of a White House Summit on Earthquake Resilience today, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) -- along with partners from state governments, universities and private foundations -- is initiating the next phase of its ‘ShakeAlert’ earthquake early warning prototype system to allow beta users, for the first time ever, to receive USGS ShakeAlert warnings and act on that information.

President Obama signed an Executive Order to institute seismic provisions for federal buildings, reflecting scientists’ current understanding of where strong shaking is likely to occur and do damage. The purpose of the Order is to reduce post-earthquake losses to affected communities and ensure federal assets are available to help with recoveries. Secretary Jewell explained that the seismic codes called for in the Executive Order are based on USGS National Seismic Hazard Maps. The maps display earthquake ground motions for various probability levels across the United States and are applied in seismic provisions of building codes, insurance rate structures, risk assessments and other public policy.

“Today’s event is about our commitment to sound science and innovation as we move to institute next-generation resilience to earthquake threats,” said Secretary Jewell. “While no one can predict earthquakes, the study of natural hazards and their causes and impacts has put us on the path to creating more effective tools to prevent these hazards from becoming disasters.”

Secretary Jewell made the announcement about the next development phase of the USGS ShakeAlert system at the White House Earthquake Resilience Summit with Dr. John P. Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House. They were joined by USGS Director Dr. Suzette Kimball, and Willie May, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Jewell reiterated that the ultimate goal is to create and operate a cost-effective earthquake early warning system for the highest risk areas of the United States beginning with California, Washington and Oregon.

Earthquake early warnings, once fully operational, will be issued by the USGS directly to public and private sector electronic systems and to individual smartphones and other delivery mechanisms. The alerts will allow people to move away from hazardous locations and ‘drop, cover, and hold on’ before strong shaking arrives from an earthquake. Once fully operational, ShakeAlert will also enable automated systems to ensure elevators and fire station doors open; sensitive equipment is placed in a safe mode; and transportation systems have the ability to automatically slow down or stop. 

“Today’s technology is now advanced enough to rapidly detect seismic waves as an earthquake begins to happen, calculate the maximum expected shaking, and send alerts to surrounding areas before damaging shaking arrives,” Dr. Kimball said. “Timely warnings of an earthquake could provide several seconds, and in some cases up to a minute or two, before the arrival of damaging shaking.”

Earthquake early warning systems are currently operating in several countries, including Japan, China, Turkey and Mexico, among others.

“The United States has the technology and will power to make cost-effective improvements in our digital and physical infrastructure,” Secretary Jewell said. “We now ask Congress to continue their support and turn these critical technologies into 21st Century tools available to all Americans in harm’s way.”

Private companies and public safety organizations are developing revolutionary uses to improve safety and reliance. Since 2006, the USGS has been working to develop earthquake early warning systems for the United States, with the help of several cooperating organizations including the California Geological Survey, the California Institute of Technology, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Southern California Earthquake Center, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich, the University of California Berkeley, the University of Oregon and the University of Washington.

The USGS monitors earthquakes around the world and responds rapidly to events of magnitude 5.0 or greater. Earlier this week, USGS announced that globally there were 14,588 earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 or greater in 2015. This worldwide number is on par with prior year averages of about 40 earthquakes per day of magnitude 4.0, or about 14,500 annually. The 2015 number may change slightly as the final results are completed by seismic analysts at the USGS National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado.

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