Damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquakeEXPAND
Damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake
Ted Soqui

Earthquake Early Warning System Was Well on Its Way. Then Trump Happened

A miraculous earthquake early warning system, known as ShakeAlert, has been in development in recent years by the U.S. Geological Survey and partner West Coast universities, including Caltech in Pasadena.

A prototype already works — in 2013 it set off alarm bells as the 4.7 Anza earthquake headed toward civilization — and its creators were hoping to roll out a fully operating system for limited distribution by summer 2018. But last week President Trump unveiled a federal budget proposal through late 2018 that includes no funding for the system.

Seismologists working on ShakeAlert say the proposal would essentially end the program. But don't take their word for it. This is what the U.S. Department of Interior stated last week: "This elimination would end USGS' efforts to implement the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system."

Caltech geophysics professor Tom Heaton is the school's lead ShakeAlert developer. He says about two dozen people might lose their jobs if the budget passes as is. "We'd have to lay people off," he says. However, some developers might be able to transfer to different positions, he says.

Lucy Jones, the retired U.S. Geological Survey seismologist who has since founded the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society, agreed, saying in a statement that the proposed budget would result in a brain drain when it comes to SoCal earthquake knowledge.

"The talented scientists and technicians that are working on the project now will go to other jobs, so their experience and expertise would be lost," she said. "Many life- and money-saving measures would not be available when the next earthquake strikes."

The ShakeAlert system now reaches a handful of government organizations, including L.A. City Hall's Office of Emergency Management, and a few private ones, like Google. It works like this: Earthquakes that take place a good distance from Los Angeles — say, along the San Andreas Fault, widely believed to become the source of our next "Big One" — take up to a minute and a half to get here. Sensors along the fault can detect big temblors as they start and transmit the information to big cities along the West Coast as many as 90 seconds before they hit (see video, below). When that Anza shaker struck, the system warned some users about 30 seconds before it got to the coast.

Of course, if ShakeAlert is rolled out to the general public via smartphone apps, which is the ultimate goal, many lives could be saved when a quake strikes. Next year's planned rollout would still reach only a limited number of organizations. But with the right funding, it could be in your hands in the years to come. "We were excited about trying to get the system out next year," Heaton says.

The essential elimination of ShakeAlert funding was widely criticized by California leaders. Attorney General Xavier Becerra said via Twitter that the oversight was another reason Trump's budget proposal was a "disaster" unto itself. The "early earthquake warning system is critical" in California, he said.

Heaton says the system ultimately needs about $120 million to reach that phone in your pocket. That would include hardware, such as sensors, and $16 million a year to pay for the seismologists and engineers to continue to develop and maintain it. As it is, ShakeAlert has existed on about $10 million a year, much of which came through legislation sponsored by Burbank U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff.

The good news is that Trump's budget proposal is just that — a proposal: Congress will likely have the biggest say on where the money goes. And ShakeAlert has support from both Democrats and Republicans. "Support for the system in Congress is quite strong," Heaton says. "It has been bipartisan."

In a statement, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti expressed some of the same political optimism. "A major earthquake in Southern California is not a matter of if but when," he said. "The president’s proposal to eliminate funding for the West Coast’s earthquake early warning system is an abandonment of his duty to protect Americans, and I trust that our representatives in Congress will have the wisdom to reject a plan that could cost lives."

Cross your fingers.

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