Success Story

USGS and Partners Develop Earthquake Early Warning Technology Under CRADA


The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has formed partnerships with both public and private entities to develop an earthquake early warning (EEW) alert system called ShakeAlert. The system has the potential to have a significant impact because earthquakes pose a national challenge, with more than 75 million Americans living in areas of significant seismic risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated that the average annual loss from earthquakes is $5.3 billion.

The USGS, through its Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) authority, collaborated with several organizations—including California Geological Survey, Caltech Seismological Laboratory, Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, USGS Menlo Park, USGS Pasadena, and the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services—to form the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) to monitor earthquakes and collect data to support improvements to earthquake resilience. CISN also collaborated with other seismic networks, such as the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS), to detect earthquakes’ first wave (p-wave) and more damaging wave (s-wave). This collaboration enables USGS and ANSS to leverage their substantial investment in sensor networks, data telemetry systems, data processing centers, and software for earthquake monitoring activities residing in these network centers.

Image courtesy of USGS.

Software, including a user interface, has been developed by USGS and other collaborators such as CalTech, Washington, Berkeley and Oregon to receive signals from the networks, and identify and characterize an earthquake a few seconds after it begins. The software calculates the likely intensity of ground shaking that will result, and delivers warnings of up to 30 seconds upon the first wave through its user interface to people and infrastructure in harm’s way, triggering evacuations and the opportunity to seek shelter that may result in less fatalities and damage.

By utilizing CRADA partnerships, USGS was able to promote seismic monitoring, and increase sensor capacity and production of an earthquake catalog, aiding the reliability of its system. Further development with other companies was sought to provide warnings through various technological mediums.

CRADA Outcome

Image courtesy of USGS.

Research determined that no single technology or mode could be relied on for mass public notification. As more bandwidth or reliance on a single source occurred, the result was greater lag time to the notification. USGS looked for partners to identify various technologies that could integrate the ShakeAlert system for public notifications. Several companies partnered with USGS in a pilot program, including the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), RH2 Engineering, and Early Warning Labs (EWL).

BART was an early adopter of the USGS ShakeAlert EEW system. BART used ShakeAlert's notification to slow its trains before strong shaking hit the tracks, thereby reducing the number of derailments, injuries and deaths. In 2014, it was reported that during the magnitude 6.0 Napa earthquake the system gave BART an 8-second warning before impact, which initiated automatic train-stopping protocols. In August 2015, a magnitude 4.0 earthquake in Oakland triggered the system, and trains automatically slowed.

RH2 Engineering focused on water utilities and the problem of broken water mains during an earthquake—after which water is most needed. RH2 designed water systems with special tank valves, switches, and pumps that could be closed remotely once p-waves were detected by the system. EWL developed a cloud server to handle low-cost mass distribution of these warnings. Its hardware linked to the cloud to receive the warning from ShakeAlert and triggered an automated response. A demonstration by EWL incorporated its hardware in a firehouse. The demonstration sent a faux signal replication at the first wave. Once the notification was received, an audible alarm was generated throughout the firehouse and all doors were opened, preventing first responders’ vehicles from being trapped in buildings power outages.