Honors Gallery

USGS Earthquake Early Warning System Lets At-Risk People Take Stock Before Feeling a Shock

Award: Impact Award

Year: 2021

Award Type: National

USGS National Labs

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Laboratories is taking some of the surprise out of experiencing an earthquake, with an early-warning technology that can provide valuable time to protect people and infrastructure from earthquake shaking. 

The ShakeAlert® Earthquake Early Warning System uses earthquake science and technology to detect significant seismic motion quickly so that alerts can reach many people, up to tens of seconds before they feel an impact. ShakeAlert is operated by the USGS but is the result of a partnership with state agencies, universities and private funders in California, Oregon and Washington. 

A few seconds of warning may not seem like much, but ShakeAlert can trigger automated actions that can prevent injury or death, reduce immediate damage and speed recovery from earthquakes. Fire station doors can be opened to prevent jamming, which traps equipment inside. Heavy equipment like trains, elevators and cranes can automatically stop or park in safe positions. 

A few seconds of warning also enables people to take protective actions, especially if they have received advance training. ShakeAlert can be particularly valuable after a large earthquake, when aftershocks shake weakened structures and endanger rescue and repair workers. 

ShakeAlert’s growing network of more than 1,100 seismic sensors (the goal is 1,675 sensors) works with the Advanced National Seismic System, California Integrated Seismic Network, Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and other partner organizations to detect real-time continuous ground motion measurements as early as possible.

ShakeAlert can be particularly valuable after a large earthquake, when aftershocks shake weakened structures and endanger rescue and repair workers. 

The system’s software quickly estimates the earthquake’s magnitude and intensity, and uses high-speed computing and distributed networks to send the information to local devices made by licensees. These devices then initiate a protective action. 

The USGS has more than 60 licensees providing or developing applications in various sectors. For example, Google and the University of California, Berkeley, have their License to Operate (LTO) and are delivering alerts to Android and iOS phones, which provide earthquake early-warning notifications to millions of users on the West Coast. 

Licensing options include: 

• An Evaluation Agreement, allowing a partner to only see a display of the system’s alerts.

• A Pilot Agreement, giving a partner access for a limited time to develop a proposed application. 

• An LTO that permits public release and sale of a partner’s tested product. The pilot license includes a conversion clause that changes it to an LTO when milestones are met. 

The USGS cooperates with state and local governments to promote licensing opportunities for additional developers to use the ShakeAlert information to trigger automated actions. 

Future uses could include integrating ShakeAlert into employee emergency notification systems to provide, for example, surgeons and other hospital personnel with alerts in the event they are in the operating room and need to protect a patient or shut down equipment.

Team Members:

Robert de Groot, USGS National Laboratories, Esther Eng, USGS National Laboratories, Douglas Given, USGS National Laboratories, James Mitchell, USGS National Laboratories, and Stephen Hickman, USGS National Laboratories

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