From University of Washington: “Q&A- ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system arriving in Pacific Northwest”

From University of Washington

ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system arriving in Pacific Northwest.

After years in development, an earthquake early warning system known as ShakeAlert is on the cusp of being released in Oregon and Washington. The system that spans the West Coast was launched in California in late 2019. It launches to the public in Oregon on March 11, the 10th anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and in Washington in May.
February 17, 2021
Hannah Hickey

More Information
Harold Tobin

Bill Steele,
communications director at
Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, at

After years in development, an earthquake early warning system known as ShakeAlert is on the cusp of being released in Oregon and Washington. The system that spans the West Coast was launched in California in late 2019. It launches to the public in Oregon on March 11, the 10th anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and in Washington in May.

The system was developed through a partnership between the University of Washington and other West Coast universities and the USGS working with state emergency management districts. The system uses ground sensors across the region to detect the first signals from a rupturing earthquake and then sends that information to computers and phones, providing seconds to tens of seconds of warning of an imminent earthquake.

UW News sat down with Harold Tobin, professor of Earth and space sciences and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, to learn more.

Karl Hagel and Pat McChesney, field engineers with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network team at the University of Washington, install earthquake monitoring equipment on the slopes of Mount St. Helens, with Mount Hood in the distance. Credit: Marc Biundo/University of Washington.

How can people in the Puget Sound sign up for the test taking place in late February? And how can Washingtonians sign up for the actual earthquake early warning system when it goes live in May?

Washington EMD and USGS have developed a simulated earthquake warning test message they will broadcast Feb. 25 on the Wireless Emergency Alert system, the nation’s universal alerting system. The test will evaluate how the WEA system performs for earthquake early warning in the Puget Sound area. For technical reasons, WEA does not distribute alerts as fast as we’d like for earthquake warnings. A delay of 30 seconds might not matter for an Amber Alert, but for earthquake warning systems that would mean many alerts would arrive after the strong shaking has begun.

You have to opt in for the test, which is for users in Pierce, King and Thurston counties. Once ShakeAlert goes live in May, earthquake alerts will go to anyone in Washington who hasn’t opted out of the Wireless Emergency Alert system.

There will be two other ways to get earthquake alerts. If you have an Android phone device, Google has embedded it in the mobile operating system in late 2020. So those devices in California are getting alerts now, and we expect Android alerts will go live in Washington in May. We hope other phone operating systems will follow suit. Another option will be to install on your device an app, like QuakeAlertUSA, built by one of the licensed ShakeAlert partners. We hope several of these apps will be available by the end of the year.

Washington ShakeAlert is a collaboration between the USGS, Washington Emergency Management and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network[PNSN]. Can you explain how the three groups collaborate?

ShakeAlert is operated by the USGS in partnership with the PNSN and California seismic networks. The data that is generated to detect the earthquakes in Washington and Oregon comes from the PNSN, the seismic network operated out of the UW and the University of Oregon. We are direct partners in the research and development of this system. At the UW, we operate one of three computer systems that ingest the data and issue the alert messages; the others are at UC Berkeley and Caltech. There’s a strong partnership between the PNSN and the USGS on earthquake detection and the continuing development of the system that issues the warnings. Washington Emergency Management is responsible for public safety, and so they are determining the types of public alerts that will be released, the messaging, public education and appropriate responses.

This is a great example of a partnership among all those entities. We are all working toward this same goal, of increasing earthquake awareness and public safety.

The PNSN began testing the system back in 2015 with early adopters. What have you learned from that experience?

A system like this is complicated, and will reach everyone, so we have to test it really extensively. We’re decreasing the number of false or missed alerts in our beta system. Just seeing more and more events has allowed us to improve the algorithms, to distinguish between a false alarm and a real signal, and to better pinpoint the magnitude and location of the earthquake. A typical time frame is now 2 seconds for our computers to decide on the location and magnitude of the earthquake and to generate the alert — the pace that that happens is unbelievable.

Now that the system is about to go public, how will other businesses, schools, organizations or agencies be able to incorporate these alerts into their emergency plans?

The USGS licenses partners to develop products that take the ShakeAlert message and can connect to other systems.

ShakeAlert® License to Operate Partners

Below is a list of License to Operate partners. They are currently the only partners with a License to Operate (e.g. have commercially or non-commercially available products or services that are powered by ShakeAlert®.

Early Warning Labs: Josh Bashioum –

Google: The Android Earthquake Alerts team –

MyShake™: Richard Allen –

RH2 Engineering: Rick Ballard –

San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART): Chung-Soo Doo –

SkyAlert: Alejandro Cantu –

Valcom: Roger Steinberg –

Varius: Dan Ervin –

Note: The USGS does not directly or indirectly endorse any product or service provided, or to be provided, by these Licensees.

A number of those licensed partners offer systems that can be adopted, such as a box that can be hooked up to a school PA system and automatically issue a prerecorded message that alerts students to drop, cover and hold on. Any business that has staff in a facility can think about how they can incorporate earthquake early warnings into their own facility. ShakeAlert messages can also trigger automated actions to pause manufacturing processes, move elevators to the next floor and open the doors, close valves on reservoirs, and initiate other loss-reduction actions.

What should someone do when they get their first “real” alert?

When someone gets an alert, the appropriate action to take is to drop, cover and hold on. It’s important to get under a protective cover. Most injuries from earthquakes in the U.S. are not from the catastrophic collapse of a building but from falling objects – lights, ceiling tiles, etc.

If you’re driving in a car, the appropriate action would be to pull over and stop the car, if possible. If you’re in a building, stay in a building. The message is really to brace yourself — drop, cover and hold on. That message, to pause and protect yourself, is key. (Washington Emergency Management has more tips here.)

What about British Columbia? Will the earthquake early warning system extend across the border?

Natural Resources Canada is working in parallel to develop an earthquake early warning system. We already use data from seismometers in Canada, and we incorporate that information in our alerts — earthquake waves don’t stop at the border.

Can we expect any improvements or changes coming down the line?

Yes, we’re improving the system all the time. We are going live with this system because we know that it works, but we’re also continuously improving the system. We have hundreds of seismic stations in place but we’re adding dozens more, so that we can optimize the network to detect earthquakes wherever they occur within the region.

We’re also continuously improving the computer algorithms that detect the raw data and decide where and how big the earthquake is. Once it goes live, there will be no pause in improving the system. We would also love to add more offshore detection systems, since offshore quakes are a challenge to detect accurately.

For me, this is an exciting example of science to action, of things that are driven by fundamental science and research in seismology that show the way to something that can do some tangible good for society — to increase public safety. It’s exciting to see that happening with the ShakeAlert system.


Earthquake Alert


Earthquake Alert

Earthquake Network projectEarthquake Network is a research project which aims at developing and maintaining a crowdsourced smartphone-based earthquake warning system at a global level. Smartphones made available by the population are used to detect the earthquake waves using the on-board accelerometers. When an earthquake is detected, an earthquake warning is issued in order to alert the population not yet reached by the damaging waves of the earthquake.

The project started on January 1, 2013 with the release of the homonymous Android application Earthquake Network. The author of the research project and developer of the smartphone application is Francesco Finazzi of the University of Bergamo, Italy.

Get the app in the Google Play store.

Smartphone network spatial distribution (green and red dots) on December 4, 2015

Meet The Quake-Catcher Network

QCN bloc

Quake-Catcher Network

The Quake-Catcher Network is a collaborative initiative for developing the world’s largest, low-cost strong-motion seismic network by utilizing sensors in and attached to internet-connected computers. With your help, the Quake-Catcher Network can provide better understanding of earthquakes, give early warning to schools, emergency response systems, and others. The Quake-Catcher Network also provides educational software designed to help teach about earthquakes and earthquake hazards.

After almost eight years at Stanford, and a year at CalTech, the QCN project is moving to the University of Southern California Dept. of Earth Sciences. QCN will be sponsored by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) and the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC).

The Quake-Catcher Network is a distributed computing network that links volunteer hosted computers into a real-time motion sensing network. QCN is one of many scientific computing projects that runs on the world-renowned distributed computing platform Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC).

The volunteer computers monitor vibrational sensors called MEMS accelerometers, and digitally transmit “triggers” to QCN’s servers whenever strong new motions are observed. QCN’s servers sift through these signals, and determine which ones represent earthquakes, and which ones represent cultural noise (like doors slamming, or trucks driving by).

There are two categories of sensors used by QCN: 1) internal mobile device sensors, and 2) external USB sensors.

Mobile Devices: MEMS sensors are often included in laptops, games, cell phones, and other electronic devices for hardware protection, navigation, and game control. When these devices are still and connected to QCN, QCN software monitors the internal accelerometer for strong new shaking. Unfortunately, these devices are rarely secured to the floor, so they may bounce around when a large earthquake occurs. While this is less than ideal for characterizing the regional ground shaking, many such sensors can still provide useful information about earthquake locations and magnitudes.

USB Sensors: MEMS sensors can be mounted to the floor and connected to a desktop computer via a USB cable. These sensors have several advantages over mobile device sensors. 1) By mounting them to the floor, they measure more reliable shaking than mobile devices. 2) These sensors typically have lower noise and better resolution of 3D motion. 3) Desktops are often left on and do not move. 4) The USB sensor is physically removed from the game, phone, or laptop, so human interaction with the device doesn’t reduce the sensors’ performance. 5) USB sensors can be aligned to North, so we know what direction the horizontal “X” and “Y” axes correspond to.

If you are a science teacher at a K-12 school, please apply for a free USB sensor and accompanying QCN software. QCN has been able to purchase sensors to donate to schools in need. If you are interested in donating to the program or requesting a sensor, click here.

BOINC is a leader in the field(s) of Distributed Computing, Grid Computing and Citizen Cyberscience.BOINC is more properly the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, developed at UC Berkeley.

Earthquake safety is a responsibility shared by billions worldwide. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) provides software so that individuals can join together to improve earthquake monitoring, earthquake awareness, and the science of earthquakes. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) links existing networked laptops and desktops in hopes to form the worlds largest strong-motion seismic network.

Below, the QCN Quake Catcher Network map
QCN Quake Catcher Network map

ShakeAlert: An Earthquake Early Warning System for the West Coast of the United States

The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) along with a coalition of State and university partners is developing and testing an earthquake early warning (EEW) system called ShakeAlert for the west coast of the United States. Long term funding must be secured before the system can begin sending general public notifications, however, some limited pilot projects are active and more are being developed. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018.

Watch a video describing how ShakeAlert works in English or Spanish.

The primary project partners include:

United States Geological Survey
California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES)
California Geological Survey
California Institute of Technology
University of California Berkeley
University of Washington
University of Oregon
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

The Earthquake Threat

Earthquakes pose a national challenge because more than 143 million Americans live in areas of significant seismic risk across 39 states. Most of our Nation’s earthquake risk is concentrated on the West Coast of the United States. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated the average annualized loss from earthquakes, nationwide, to be $5.3 billion, with 77 percent of that figure ($4.1 billion) coming from California, Washington, and Oregon, and 66 percent ($3.5 billion) from California alone. In the next 30 years, California has a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake and the Pacific Northwest has a 10 percent chance of a magnitude 8 to 9 megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone.

Part of the Solution

Today, the technology exists to detect earthquakes, so quickly, that an alert can reach some areas before strong shaking arrives. The purpose of the ShakeAlert system is to identify and characterize an earthquake a few seconds after it begins, calculate the likely intensity of ground shaking that will result, and deliver warnings to people and infrastructure in harm’s way. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave arrives, bringing the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage.

Studies of earthquake early warning methods in California have shown that the warning time would range from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds. ShakeAlert can give enough time to slow trains and taxiing planes, to prevent cars from entering bridges and tunnels, to move away from dangerous machines or chemicals in work environments and to take cover under a desk, or to automatically shut down and isolate industrial systems. Taking such actions before shaking starts can reduce damage and casualties during an earthquake. It can also prevent cascading failures in the aftermath of an event. For example, isolating utilities before shaking starts can reduce the number of fire initiations.

System Goal

The USGS will issue public warnings of potentially damaging earthquakes and provide warning parameter data to government agencies and private users on a region-by-region basis, as soon as the ShakeAlert system, its products, and its parametric data meet minimum quality and reliability standards in those geographic regions. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018. Product availability will expand geographically via ANSS regional seismic networks, such that ShakeAlert products and warnings become available for all regions with dense seismic instrumentation.

Current Status

The West Coast ShakeAlert system is being developed by expanding and upgrading the infrastructure of regional seismic networks that are part of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS); the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) is made up of the Southern California Seismic Network, SCSN) and the Northern California Seismic System, NCSS and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN). This enables the 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. The ShakeAlert system has been sending live alerts to “beta” users in California since January of 2012 and in the Pacific Northwest since February of 2015.

In February of 2016 the USGS, along with its partners, rolled-out the next-generation ShakeAlert early warning test system in California joined by Oregon and Washington in April 2017. This West Coast-wide “production prototype” has been designed for redundant, reliable operations. The system includes geographically distributed servers, and allows for automatic fail-over if connection is lost.

This next-generation system will not yet support public warnings but does allow selected early adopters to develop and deploy pilot implementations that take protective actions triggered by the ShakeAlert notifications in areas with sufficient sensor coverage.


The USGS will develop and operate the ShakeAlert system, and issue public notifications under collaborative authorities with FEMA, as part of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, as enacted by the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, 42 U.S.C. §§ 7704 SEC. 2.

For More Information

Robert de Groot, ShakeAlert National Coordinator for Communication, Education, and Outreach

Learn more about EEW Research

ShakeAlert Fact Sheet

ShakeAlert Implementation Plan

QuakeAlertUSA mobile app


About Early Warning Labs, LLC

Early Warning Labs, LLC (EWL) is an Earthquake Early Warning technology developer and integrator located in Santa Monica, CA. EWL is partnered with industry leading GIS provider ESRI, Inc. and is collaborating with the US Government and university partners.

EWL is investing millions of dollars over the next 36 months to complete the final integration and delivery of Earthquake Early Warning to individual consumers, government entities, and commercial users.

EWL’s mission is to improve, expand, and lower the costs of the existing earthquake early warning systems.

EWL is developing a robust cloud server environment to handle low-cost mass distribution of these warnings. In addition, Early Warning Labs is researching and developing automated response standards and systems that allow public and private users to take pre-defined automated actions to protect lives and assets.

EWL has an existing beta R&D test system installed at one of the largest studios in Southern California. The goal of this system is to stress test EWL’s hardware, software, and alert signals while improving latency and reliability.

Earthquake Early Warning Introduction

The United States Geological Survey (USGS), in collaboration with state agencies, university partners, and private industry, is developing an earthquake early warning system (EEW) for the West Coast of the United States called ShakeAlert. The USGS Earthquake Hazards Program aims to mitigate earthquake losses in the United States. Citizens, first responders, and engineers rely on the USGS for accurate and timely information about where earthquakes occur, the ground shaking intensity in different locations, and the likelihood is of future significant ground shaking.

The ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System recently entered its first phase of operations. The USGS working in partnership with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) is now allowing for the testing of public alerting via apps, Wireless Emergency Alerts, and by other means throughout California.

ShakeAlert partners in Oregon and Washington are working with the USGS to test public alerting in those states sometime in 2020.

ShakeAlert has demonstrated the feasibility of earthquake early warning, from event detection to producing USGS issued ShakeAlerts ® and will continue to undergo testing and will improve over time. In particular, robust and reliable alert delivery pathways for automated actions are currently being developed and implemented by private industry partners for use in California, Oregon, and Washington.

Earthquake Early Warning Background

The objective of an earthquake early warning system is to rapidly detect the initiation of an earthquake, estimate the level of ground shaking intensity to be expected, and issue a warning before significant ground shaking starts. A network of seismic sensors detects the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, and the location and the magnitude of the earthquake is rapidly determined. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated. The system can provide warning before the S-wave arrives, which brings the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage. Warnings will be distributed to local and state public emergency response officials, critical infrastructure, private businesses, and the public. EEW systems have been successfully implemented in Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, and other nations with varying degrees of sophistication and coverage.

Earthquake early warning can provide enough time to:

Instruct students and employees to take a protective action such as Drop, Cover, and Hold On
Initiate mass notification procedures
Open fire-house doors and notify local first responders
Slow and stop trains and taxiing planes
Install measures to prevent/limit additional cars from going on bridges, entering tunnels, and being on freeway overpasses before the shaking starts
Move people away from dangerous machines or chemicals in work environments
Shut down gas lines, water treatment plants, or nuclear reactors
Automatically shut down and isolate industrial systems

However, earthquake warning notifications must be transmitted without requiring human review and response action must be automated, as the total warning times are short depending on geographic distance and varying soil densities from the epicenter.

See the full article here .


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