ShakeAlert Provides Lifesaving Early Warning During Earthquakes

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Governor Kate Brown introduces ShakeAlert early warning system as part of a proposed $12.7 million investment to enhance Oregon’s resiliency

PORTLAND — A matter of seconds can shape the outcome for communities in the event of an earthquake. And thanks to a cutting-edge early warning system, one quick and simple notification could mean the difference between Oregonians reaching safety or facing irreversible tragedy.

This week, Governor Kate Brown introduced a bill to improve Oregon’s readiness for an eventual Cascadia earthquake, also commonly referred to as “The Big One.”  The ShakeAlert early warning system is one of the most crucial components of Governor Brown’s proposed $12.7 million investment this legislative session to enhance public safety and disaster preparedness.

“When the next large-scale Cascadia earthquake and tsunami strike the Pacific Northwest, Oregon will face the greatest challenge of our lifetimes,” said Governor Brown. “[ShakeAlert] will give us time to mitigate damage to important systems, such as drinking water, energy, medical and waste-water systems. But most importantly, ShakeAlert will save lives.”

Great Subduction Zone earthquakes are some of the largest in the world, and the only source zones that can produce earthquakes larger than 8.5 magnitude. Oregon’s geographic positioning places it in the middle of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and the broader Pacific Northwest has the potential for catastrophic impacts as well. The last major earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone fault occurred more than 300 years ago on January 26, 1700, with an estimated 9.0 magnitude. It caused the coastline to drop several feet and generated a large tsunami that inundated coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest. 

“When the Cascadia Subduction Zone ruptures, it doesn’t rupture everywhere all at once. It unzips like a zipper, at a rate of about 2 miles per second,” said Professor Doug Toomey, a professor of earth science at the University of Oregon and leader of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network. “Given it’s length of about 600 miles, it’s on the order of 300 seconds for a full unzipping of the Cascadia Subduction Zone.”

Toomey says the warning time a person receives depends on their distance to the epicenter, and the shaking level someone experiences depends on the distance to the closest rupture near their location. The ShakeAlert system can provide seconds to tens of seconds warning before strong shaking arrives, buying opportunities for people to protect themselves.

With Oregon, Washington and California all using ShakeAlert, the system is able to prioritize public safety for the entire west coast of America, composing a well-coordinated coalition of federal, state and university partners in all three states.

About Author

Bethany Abbate is a Strategic Communications Intern at the Office of Governor Kate Brown. She is a junior at Willamette University studying Civic Communications and Media.

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