Researchers Say Future Appears Grim for Earthquake Early Warning System Under Proposed Budget

The system being developed in California and elsewhere on the West Coast would provide a few seconds to prepare for shaking

Plans for a West Coast earthquake early warning system, designed to one day give notice of an imminent temblor, would likely be killed under President Donald Trump's proposed federal budget.

If approved, the White House plan for the fiscal year ending in September 2018 would eliminate funds needed to develop the system, which already has components in place in California. The system still needs an array of sensors before it can trigger early warning alerts a few seconds or minutes before the shaking.

The proposed budget calls for the elimination of $8.2 million to $10 million to end the USGS ShakeAlert early warning system. Funding would be cut to Caltech and other research institutions on the West Coast working with the USGS to develop the system. 

"We cannot stop now, just as monitoring stations are being built out and the system is expanding its reach," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California). "Support for the early warning system in Congress is sustained, growing and bipartisan, and we will not accept this attempt by the president to cut a vital funding stream for a program that will protect life, property and critical infrastructure."

Early warning systems like ShakeAlert are designed to detect the first shockwaves produced by seismic activity by using hundreds of ground motion sensors. In the case of a large jolt, the system would trigger an alert ahead of the larger, more damaging seismic waves.

The advance warning would allow office workers and schoolchildren, for example, time to duck and cover under desks. Just a few seconds of warning would allow train operators to apply brakes and doctors to prepare for shaking during surgeries. 

Automated systems mated to the early alert system could shut off gas lines, possibly limiting post-quake fire damage.

"I am deeply disappointed to see that President Trump's budget proposes to eliminate funding for earthquake early warning in the western U.S.," said Dr. Lucy Jones, a seismologist who worked for three decades with the U.S. Geological Survey at Southern California's Caltech. "Eliminating the $10 million per year that the government has been spending would stop the program and waste the $23 million that has already been invested.

"The talented scientists and technicians that are working on the project now will go to other jobs, so their experience and expertise would be lost. Many life- and money-saving measures would not be available when the next earthquake strikes." 

The Department of the Interior defended the cuts in a statement, saying the $922 million USGS budget "highlights the Administration’s commitment to increasing efficiency across the federal government." It said the agency will be able to monitor earthquakes using the existing Advanced National Seismic System, according to the statement.

"President Trump promised the American people he would cut wasteful spending and make the government work for the taxpayer again, and that's exactly what this budget does," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke,  in a statement issued about the USGS budget. "Working carefully with the President, we identified areas where we could reduce spending and also areas for investment, such as addressing the maintenance backlog in our National Parks and increasing domestic energy production on federal lands. The budget also allows the Department to return to the traditional principles of multiple-use management to include both responsible natural resource development and conservation of special places.

"Being from the West, I've seen how years of bloated bureaucracy and D.C.-centric policies hurt our rural communities. The President's budget saves taxpayers by focusing program spending, shrinking bureaucracy, and empowering the front lines."

Similar systems are already operating in other countries. In Mexico City, an early warning system in place since 1991 detects large quakes and determines locations and magnitude. The sprawling metropolis is several hundred miles from the main plate boundary, which means it can receive warnings more than a minute before shaking. 

The system was praised by experts, who said it provided the densely populated city with more than a minute of warning during a magnitude-7.2 earthquake in April 2014.

Japan has the most advanced early warning system. Initially developed to stop or slow the country's high-speed trains during shaking, the system was deployed nationwide. It features on- and off-shore sensors. 

Japan has issued public warnings through the system since 2007.

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