© 2024 KLCC

136 W 8th Ave
Eugene OR 97401

Contact Us

FCC Applications
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

University of Oregon Earthquake Detection And Warning System Gets $400k Boost

Brian Bull

With a so-called “Cascadia event” expected to hit the Pacific Northwest anytime now, earthquake detection and warning systems are more crucial than ever. KLCC’s Brian Bull reports that the University of Oregon has received $400,000 in federal funds to help its efforts.

Inside a campus seismology lab, Leland O’Driscoll runs a simulation on the ShakeAlert program, where an 8.0 magnitude earthquake has hit the Washington coast.


“We see on the screen there’s a yellow circle, emanating out of the earthquake epicenter," explains O'Driscoll.  He's Oregon Seismic Network Manager at the U of O. He says with seconds of advance warning, trains can be halted, emergency generators activated, and people can find shelter.

This is all part of an implementation plan involving seismic stations being developed with the University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey. O’Driscoll says they’re about halfway there.

“What that means in terms of station counts, is that we’re looking at about 550 or stations in Oregon and Washington.”

The $400,000 is both continued operational funds, and a one-time capital fund appropriation that’s tied to a $10 million Congressional allocation from last year.

Brian Bull, KLCC News.

Credit USGS
Seismic hazard map as prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey.



Driscoll:  "So…kinda what we’re looking at is the ShakeAlert user display software suite.  So currently this system is live for institutional users…for example, the pilot projects we have with various groups including Eugene Water and Electric Board here in Eugene, ODOT and their bridges division, who are looking into stop signs or stop lights on bridges ahead of strong shaking.  They’re using system right now.  As we build out, it’s just simply improving.  And more people and institutions are starting to use the software.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
ShakeAlert system as shown during a simulated 8.0 magnitude earthquake off the Washington Coast. In this scenario, Eugene has just under a minute and a half to respond.

"So right now we’re looking at this map of Oregon, California, and Washington, and our user location is set here at the University of Oregon.  What it can bring up on here is an example event, where hypothetically if a magnitude 8.0 where to occur off the coast of Washington, this live software would pop up and show you the amount of time you should expect before shaking arrives at your location. It’ll also give you a measure of what the local shaking intensity is estimated to be. A pretty good calculation, so…I’m going to go ahead and select that event. And run it forward….

Computer: "EARTHQUAKE…light shaking expected in 113 seconds”

Driscoll: "There’s a countdown right now. We see on the screen there’s a yellow circle, emanating out of the earthquake epicenter.  Now, that represents the P-Wave of the earthquake, which is a fast-traveling wave...

Computer: "BEEP BEEP BEEP! Earthquake, light shaking expected in 91 seconds…"

Driscoll:  "The fast traveling wave, the P-Wave, is what the system detects. It’s easy to see with the instrumentation, and that doesn’t cause a lot of damage. However, there is a secondary form of energy that comes out of every earthquake, it’s the S-Wave, or the secondary wave. That is the wave that causes strong shaking.  So in essence, what Shake Alert allows, is the P-Wave can be detected right by the earthquake source, and then ShakeAlert allows a determination of the amount of time and expected intensity a user in the farther, adjacent regions would experience. 

"So as we look at this countdown playing down, we see Eugene is expected to have about 40 seconds until this S-Wave finally arrives into the region. And we’ve been watching this unfold for over a minute of time, and so that really gives a good sense…you may have a minute of advance warning before shaking starts. So there’s a lot of protective action that could be carried out in that case. And that’s what really what we’re looking to roll forward.

Computer: “This is a test!  BEEP BEEP BEEP!  Earthquake…light shaking expected in 18 seconds…this is test..."

Driscoll:  "So now the wave is going to get closer to us and the intensity will go up here…


Driscoll: "And there it was, the earthquake has now begun shaking our region, if this is a magnitude 8.0 we would still be shaking right now, and we’d be presumably be shaking for many minutes, with the wave train continues to roll through our region. And this is our primary concern with the Big One especially with the I-5 corridor in the Northwest, is…while the energy may not be extremely violent when it first arrives, it’s a long sway that can continue for many minutes, and those are the types of ground movements that a lot of our infrastructure isn’t prepared to handle.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Sensor apparatuses at the University of Oregon.

"So…these are the sensors….so, we’re currently bench testing a few of the sensors that will go into the network. In front of me, I have a strong motion accelerometer. And this is truly what can detect very large motions, it’s appropriate for magnitude 8.0 earthquakes, it can even detect down lower levels, to magnitude 2.0 earthquakes. We must deploy a strong motion sensor at every ShakeAlert station, such that it can contribute proper data to the system. 

"And in a second, I’ll show what it actually looks like.  If we tap right now, you’ll see how sensitive this truly is. There’s another suite of sensor types here, that can both capture large ground motions and ground accelerations, but also weak motions, so that allows detection of very small earthquakes, or very distant earthquakes, which in the science world of seismology we need those higher-quality data to better image the interior of the earth, understand its composition, and how waves would propagate through the earth.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Sensor readings on O'Driscoll's computer show sensitivity of instruments.

"So that’s what we have here in this silver canister.  Which would be entombed underground in a vault.  And connected directly to the brains of the system, this data-logger.  And all of those are 24-7, 365, contributing live, rapid-data to the ShakeAlert system to make an expedient ability to detect earthquakes.

"I’d just like everybody to know, the system’s going to be coming live in the next coming years, so think about what you might do if you had an advance warning directly to your person before shaking started, what would you do?  And think about that ahead of time, and have planning with your family and friends about what would happen in the case of a big earthquake event in our region."

Copyright 2019, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
Related Content