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New warning system could alert you seconds before quake hits

U. S. Geological Survey

What would you do if you knew a major earthquake was about to strike in 10 seconds? Some scientists say even a few moments’ warning could save lives, and they’re setting up a system that might soon give Washingtonians time to act before the shaking starts.

A few seconds may not sound like much, but if you’re, say, getting minor surgery or driving on the bottom deck of the Alaskan Way viaduct, that heads up might make a huge difference in how well you survive an earthquake. The U. S. Geological Survey is building a network of seismic stations and communications infrastructure on the west coast that could provide that early warning. They’re set to brief Congress on it Friday.

Once it’s up and running, sensors near the epicenter would send out an instant alarm that a quake is underway. The warning travels faster than the seismic waves rippling out from the source, and people dozens or hundreds of miles away get an alert shaking is headed their way.

The Earthquake Early Warning system is being piloted in California, and is expected to expand to Washington as well. University of Washington seismologists are partnering on the project.

USGS scientist Elizabeth Cochran said systems like this are already saving lives in places like Japan.

“There, if you just look at the high-speed train system that they have and the number of times they have potentially save d a train from being derailed during strong shaking, the benefit has been extraordinary,” Cochran said.

Alerts would likely arrive by cell phone, as well as through radio and TV. Cochran says she expects building out the system to cost the federal government about $50 million dollars a year.

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  • Two major earthquakes last year raised red flags for the Northwest. Some of the damage from those quakes in Japan and New Zealand resulted from a phenomenon called liquefaction. This is when the ground turns to jello or quicksand. Transmission towers topple, buildings sink and utility pipes break. Now, geologists in the Northwest have mapped the spots most likely to liquefy here in an earthquake.