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Earthquake early warning system for Oregon, Washington, & California gets upgrade


The earthquake early warning system that operates on the west coast got a big upgrade recently. ShakeAlert is now using satellite technology to detect seismic activity.

Diego Melgar, associate professor of geophysics at the University of Oregon, said a new kind of GPS, sort of like what we use to navigate, is now part of the system.


“The reason it’s really important is because it helps with the really big events,” he said. “So, for magnitude 8 and magnitude 9s, GPS really shines. It’s the technology you want to have. Because, if you don’t have it, if you just have the standard seismic sensors that we’ve been using for the last few years it can be really tricky to tell apart a big earthquake from a really big earthquake.”

Melgar said the GPS technology is really really precise. He said in Japan in 2011 there was a magnitude 9 earthquake.

“The earthquake early warning system in Japan, the most advanced in the world at that time, thought the earthquake was only a magnitude 8,” said Melgar. “If it’s a magnitude 9 and you think it’s a magnitude 8, then you’re going to issue alerts to maybe not enough numbers of people, the alerts not going to go out as wide. The tsunami warning might not be as broad as necessary.”

ShakeAlert sends out a message to smart phones on the same system used by Amber Alert. People can also download ShakeAlert apps for their phones.

Melgar said the amount of time that ShakeAlert gives warning before an earthquake depends on how close you are to the epicenter.

ShakAlert has been fully operational in Oregon, Washington and California since 2021.

It hasn’t yet been activated in Oregon as the state hasn't had a large enough earthquake to set it off yet.

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s host for All Things Considered on weekday afternoons. She also is the editor of the KLCC Extra, the daily digital newspaper. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000.
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