For all Doug Toomey knows, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake could strike Oregon tomorrow. That’s why Toomey, a geophysics professor and the director of the Oregon Hazards Lab at the University of Oregon, believes creating a sophisticated early earthquake warning system for Oregon and the western U.S. is vital to public safety.
“We know that one is going to happen at some point in the future, we just don’t know when,” Toomey said.
Toomey’s concerns are shared by many scientists and nonscientists alike, including Oregon’s representatives in Washington D.C. On March 5, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley announced that UO received a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Geological Survey to improve early earthquake detection systems. In October 2017, Gov. Kate Brown published her “Resiliency 2025” plan geared toward increasing the state’s preparedness for a massive earthquake. Item three of her plan specifically calls for the implementation of a statewide earthquake early warning system by 2023.
Toomey’s lab, along with many other organizations, has constructed the foundation of such an early alert system known as ShakeAlert. The system relies on a network of sensors scattered around the Pacific Northwest that relay real-time data to one of three computing centers. These centers can check the location of an event and generate a corresponding alert.
While the system currently relies on a mix of data transmitting technologies, Toomey said his goal is to communicate all data from the system via microwaves. Higher in electromagnetic frequency than radio waves, Toomey said microwaves are advantageous for two reasons. He explained that a magnitude 9.0 earthquake would likely disable nearby cell towers. Cell phone towers rely on radio waves, so using microwaves would bypass this threat.
Toomey also said microwaves can transmit higher volumes of data than radio waves, should cell phone towers be bogged down with people attempting to communicate during an emergency.
When one experiences an earthquake, they are experiencing a secondary or “S” wave — a relatively slow moving seismic wave traveling through the Earth’s surface. In order to detect earthquakes before they strike, ShakeAlert relies on primary or “P” waves. Produced simultaneously with an S wave, Toomey said a P wave moves faster than an S wave but has little destructive capability, and therefore can be detected prior to a destructive S wave.
“The amount of warning you get depends where you are with respect to the earthquake,” Toomey said. “If it happens beneath your chair, you get no warning. But if it starts in Cape Mendocino, [California] and you’re here in Eugene, you can get up to 100 seconds of warning.”
The Cascadia Subduction Zone is created by the Juan de Fuca Plate sliding beneath the North American continental plate off the coast of Oregon. Toomey said the entire zone extends from Washington to northern California and is divided into three sections. He characterized the subduction zone as zipper — a section slipping only if the previous section has slipped.
“As the [subduction zone] is unzipping,” Toomey said, “the magnitude of [the earthquake] is growing. So when the earthquake first starts, you don’t know whether it is going to be a four, five, six or nine.”
The alert system Toomey and his colleagues are developing can be applied to other types of disasters as well. The Oregon Hazards Lab also oversees AlertWildfire, which uses the remote locations of seismometers and mounts high-resolution cameras at the stations.
Toomey said members of the public could use the system to make decisions about whether to evacuate their homes. Emergency authorities could control cameras remotely to search for fires, assess a fire’s magnitude and determine a course of action before getting to a site.
Wildfires are a predictable, common occurrence in Oregon, so Toomey said he feels more pressure to get the warning system for AlertWildfire online rather than ShakeAlert.
“We know this summer, it’s going to suck, again,” he said about the fire season. “That is a persistent, yearly, problem we have in our state. We don’t know when Cascadia is going to happen. It could happen today but odds are it is somewhere in the future.”
The technological specifications of the alert system is just half the battle. Toomey said that an equally substantial challenge is educating the public on how to respond to an alert.
“A large part of our effort is also coordinating the communication, education and outreach processes,” Toomey said. He added that the alert systems would not receive funding if he and his colleagues did not commit to such outreach.
Ultimately, Toomey said he envisions applying the infrastructure that supports ShakeAlert and AlertWildfire to all manners of disasters. He also said eventually non-disaster researchers could use this infrastructure to monitor any matter of nature.
“We call it the internet of wild things,” Toomey said.