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Work Begins On Regional Earthquake Early Warning System

USGS map of the earthquakes in the USA from November 22-29, 2011.
USGS map of the earthquakes in the USA from November 22-29, 2011.

A research grant announced Tuesday will allow seismologists to take the first steps toward an early warning system for earthquakes in the Northwest. An operational system is still a long way off, but it could eventually resemble the computerized warnings pioneered in Japan.

Back in March, some Japanese residents got an alert via cell phone or a TV screen pop-up. The alert warned them that severe shaking would begin within seconds.

Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network director John Vidale says an early warning, even of less than a minute, gives time to prepare.

"Surgeons could stop their operations. People would have time to switch to back up generators," Vidale says.

The regional warning system this University of Washington professor has in mind doesn't predict earthquakes, but takes advantage of the fact that radio waves travel far faster than the shocks of a big earthquake.

"If there's an earthquake nearby there is very little warning possible," Vidale explains. "However, if there is an earthquake over on the coast, the energy takes a minute or two to travel from the coast into the Puget Sound."

A $2 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will pay for sensors on the Northwest coast and then test whether a useful warning can be transmitted in time to inland cities like Seattle, Portland, Eugene or Vancouver, BC.


Journalist Bill Lascher contributed to this report.

On the Web:

Pacific Northwest Seismic Network:

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation press release:

Home video of earthquake warning:

Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.