The federal government announced on Tuesday its support for earthquake warning systems as part of its expanded commitment to increase the nation’s resilience to the natural disaster.

On the same day, President Barack Obama also signed an executive order that mandates seismic safety codes for all federal buildings, as well as mobilizes federal assets to support disaster recovery efforts.

The United States Geological Survey and its government, private, and academic partners launched the beta phase of ShakeAlert, the earthquake early warning system for the West Coast. This system sends alerts at the speed of light, or 100,000 times quicker than seismic waves traveling through rock.

“The technology is ready today. Hopefully we can move to a full-blown public warning system over the next few years,” said Richard Allen, University of Berkeley seismology lab director, at an Earthquake Resilience Summit at the White House.

ShakeAlert will depend on hundreds of massive, submerged sensors in various places, with some of them so sensitive that they can pick up the moon’s gravitational pull. It is currently in production prototype stage but already gave San Francisco authorities 8 seconds of alert that shaking from the Napa earthquake back in 2014 was underway.

Once it is completely operational, USGS will issue it directly to individual electronic systems and smartphones, among other delivery techniques. ShakeAlert will produce automated alerts that make it possible to protect sensitive equipment for gas and electricity, as well as shut down train systems and machinery. More seismic sensors, too, are planned to be added in California, Washington and Oregon.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation also announced giving $3.6 million in grants to advance the ShakeAlert system through three research pursuits: a new way to detect shaking using the GPS sensors in a smartphone’s accelerometer; a humanlike decision-making mechanism for issuing early alerts; and harnessing a network of ocean floor sensors for early warning.

A 2015 USGS assessment warned that over 143 million Americans in continental U.S. could suffer potentially damaging earthquakes – double its 2006 estimate due to growing populations in risk-prone areas and easier methods used to estimate earthquake risks.

“Improving warning systems, better building protections, and informed citizens can help mitigate losses, injuries, and deaths, and also can help communities recover faster,” said the White House in its statement.

Photo : UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences | Flickr

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