ShakeAlert to Provide Lifesaving Early Warning During Earthquakes


Governor Kate Brown approves ShakeAlert early warning system to enhance Oregon’s resiliency

SALEM — 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 called ShakeAlert from the U.S. Geological Survey, one quick and simple notification could mean the difference between Oregonians reaching safety or facing irreversible tragedy.

In the August Special Session of the Oregon Legislature, the House and Senate passed bills approving funding for ShakeAlert (this was proposed by Governor Kate Brown in the February session, but left unfunded due to the Republican walkout). In the event of the Cascadia quake, commonly referred to as “The Big One,” the ShakeAlert early warning system will help enhance public safety and disaster preparedness.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic holds the state and the nation’s attention, it’s important to remember that The Big One could still hit at any time. Oregonians need to be Two-Week Ready, meaning a two-week supply of non-perishable food and water to use after a natural disaster, as well as knowing the staging bases nearby that will distribute critical resources. Much more info can be found in the Red Cross Cascades disaster resource guide. You can also access a great earthquake-preparedness activity book for kids here.

“When the next large-scale Cascadia earthquake and tsunami strike the Pacific Northwest, Oregon will face one of the greatest challenges 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.

Here’s how it works:

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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