ShakeAlert system now active for mobile phones | Environment

When a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake strikes beneath the Pacific Ocean, it will shake up much of the West Coast, including Skagit County.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network on May 4 released a new early warning system that can notify mobile phone users in the state that the shaking is about to start. 

That system, called ShakeAlert, has been in development for 15 years, according to a news release. A prototype was released in 2016, and the system went live for California in 2019 and for Oregon this March.

With its reach now in all three states, the ShakeAlert system is available to more than 50 million residents within the country’s most earthquake-prone region. 

Mobile phone data will automatically notify users in an earthquake’s path as long as the device settings are set to allow Emergency Alerts, Public Safety Alerts and Public Safety Messages. 

The ShakeAlert program relies on real-time data from Pacific Northwest Seismic Station sensors throughout the region. 

As seismic waves that create the shaking during an earthquake spread, they are picked up by those seismic stations located in public spaces such as schools and city-owned buildings. That data is fed into the USGS Advanced National Seismic System. 

ShakeAlert technology can also be used to automate systems such as slowing train speeds to reduce the potential for derailments, opening firehouse doors to ensure emergency response can occur and closing valves to reduce leaks if gas or water pipelines are damaged, according to the release.

The ShakeAlert system will continue to improve as more sensors, called seismometers, are added to the network. One such sensor is being installed at Conway School. 

Superintendent Jeff Cravy said the Conway School Board approved placement of the sensor at its April 26 meeting. It will be the 13th seismometer monitored by the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network in Skagit County, according to the network’s website. 

The other 12 sensors are in the Rockport area, at the Puget Sound Energy dams on the Baker River, at Sedro-Woolley’s City Hall, at a fire station near Burlington, at Edison Elementary School, in La Conner, on Mount Erie, on Fidalgo Island and on Guemes Island. 

The sensors may not look like much — “It’s basically a 20×20 box that sits in our communications room,” Cravy said — but they can provide valuable information before a natural disaster strikes. 

For Conway students, the newest seismometer could also provide some local data from which to learn. 

“Our hope is to use the website with Conway-specific information as well as some surrounding spots to do science activities,” Cravy said.