Natural Catastrophe

Quake Early Warning Systems Advance

The U.S. Geological Survey is funding the development of the next generation of earthquake early warning systems.
By: | September 7, 2016 • 4 min read

The recent catastrophic earthquake in central Italy once again brings attention to the concept of an earthquake early warning system — a technology that can give people a precious few seconds to stop what they’re doing and take protective actions before the severe shaking waves from an earthquake arrive.

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To try to improve an existing (in development) U.S.-based warning system, ShakeAlert, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently awarded $3.7 million to six universities to support transitioning ShakeAlert into a full-blown production system.

According to USGS, the schools involved are the California Institute of Technology, Central Washington University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Oregon, University of Washington and University of Nevada, Reno.

In development for a decade, this impending ShakeAlert “upgrade” emphasizes the use of real-time GPS observations. Typical earthquake early warning systems use seismic data, which is not as effective as GPS technology in many cases.

The project’s goal: rapidly detect potentially damaging earthquakes, more thoroughly test the warning system, and improve its performance. In addition, they will upgrade the networks and construct new seismic and geodetic sensors to improve the speed and reliability of the warnings.

“Local seismic networks have a tough time discriminating between large [M6] and very large [M7-9] earthquakes in real-time, whereas the GPS does not, assuming one has instruments nearby the earthquake and can keep them alive and transmitting thereafter,” said Tim Melbourne, a geological sciences professor and director of the PANGA Geodesy Laboratory at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash.

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Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator, Caltech Seismological Lab

According to Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator at the Caltech Seismological Lab in Pasadena, Calif., the USGS and its partners began sending live alerts to beta users in January of 2012. In February 2016, it rolled-out the next-generation ShakeAlert early warning test system in California.

USGS plans to begin sending limited public alerts by 2018 in areas where station coverage is sufficient and public educations and training has been introduced. Full operation will not be possible until full funding is secured to complete, maintain, and operate the system.

“Recording real-time, high-precision GPS ground motions is an emerging technology,” he said. “GPS sensors can stay on scale and more accurately measure large displacements of the ground during very large earthquakes, say greater than magnitude 7.”

Given cited the M9.0 Japanese earthquake in 2010. The Japanese earthquake warning system, which only uses seismic data, “saturated” at M8.1, resulting in an underestimation of the resulting ground motions.

“GPS sensors can stay on scale and more accurately measure large displacements of the ground during very large earthquakes, say greater than magnitude 7.” — Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator, Caltech Seismological Lab

“Studies done after the earthquake have shown that a better magnitude estimate results by including GPS data,” Given said.

Would ShakeAlert, operating at full production, have an impact on commercial insurance? It’s highly possible, according to experts.

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Michael Pinsel, partner, Insurance and Financial Services group, Sidley Austin LLP

“We welcome public investments into the mitigation of earthquake risks in California, as it contributes to a more resilient society,” said Andrew Castaldi, SVP and head of catastrophe perils, Americas, with Swiss Re. “Ample warning time of a pending natural disaster is vital to saving lives.”

Castaldi explained that with meteorological events, many of which are slow moving, experts can predict and warn with a degree of accuracy — days, hours, or minutes beforehand. This keeps fatalities down in relation to property damage.

But earthquakes, and their potential for devastation, and can happen at any time, day or night.

“Early warning systems provide valuable seconds before the ground begins to shake,” he said. “Even a few seconds’ warning will provide time for first responders to prepare, for trains to decelerate, for gas pipe shutoff valves to be closed, for example. Moreover, early warning can save lives by giving people time to protect themselves [drop, cover, and hold].”

“Investment in early warning systems should not come at the cost of decreased investment in improving the resilience of infrastructure or lifelines and buildings throughout California.” — Andrew Castaldi, SVP and head of catastrophe perils, Americas, Swiss Re

Castaldi said that businesses and people that incorporate early warnings into their emergency preparedness plans can mitigate against potential fire, business interruption and casualty losses. He cautioned though, that even a system like ShakeAlert cannot reduce damage to a poorly designed building or a poorly secured piece of equipment, nor can it help compensate for the financial losses associated with the ensuing damages.

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“Investment in early warning systems should not come at the cost of decreased investment in improving the resilience of infrastructure or lifelines and buildings throughout California,” he said. “Early warnings, enforced building codes, and adequate post-event financing [earthquake insurance] will help us become more resilient to the next big earthquake.”

Michael Pinsel, a partner in the Insurance and Financial Services group at Sidley Austin LLP, in Chicago, said that advances in science, technology and early warning systems no doubt enhance the opportunities to improve the risk management of those who take advantage of such opportunities.

“Improvements in risk management ultimately should be reflected in lower loss costs and more efficient premium structures for protection buyers,” he said. “And improvements to sensor and telemetry infrastructure are also useful to the insurance industry, which often can develop efficient new coverages and risk-spreading products to help individual and business consumers manage their risks.”

Tom Starner is a freelance business writer and editor. He can be reached at [email protected]

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