Experts say “the big one” is coming to the Pacific Northwest. They’re referring to a huge earthquake. But thanks to an early warning system adopted this spring, folks in Oregon may be better prepared for a colossal rumble.
Earthquakes feature in accounts from Moses and Elijah (Exodus 19:18, 1 Kings 19:11) to Jesus and Paul (Matthew 27:51-54, Acts 16:26). It’s clear that the Creator God controls all facets of Earth’s environment—including seemingly disastrous weather and geological events.
The Cascadia Subduction Zone, or CSZ, runs from the ocean off Northern California past Oregon and Washington state to Canada’s Vancouver Island. For centuries, the area has been home to quakes with an average magnitude of nine. That makes CSZ quakes among the world’s largest.
It’s been a while since a so-called “great earthquake” (magnitude above eight). The last one in the CSZ was January 26, 1700. Many geologists believe the area is overdue. They predict a great earthquake off the Oregon coast sometime in the next 50 years.
To help save lives along the CSZ, the U.S. Geological Survey operates the ShakeAlert system. California and Oregon already use the technology, with Washington State joining in May. ShakeAlert’s seismographic (motion measuring) sensors detect earthquakes. The system sends alerts, so people can seek safety before the tremors start.
The system cannot predict an earthquake. But it provides a head start for folks seeking cover and bracing for a quake.
“When a Cascadia event happens, the critical seconds of notice ShakeAlert warnings provide will save lives and reduce damage to important lifeline systems,” says Oregon Governor Kate Brown. Her state adopted ShakeAlert in March.
Jenny Crayne of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry says the system works by detecting an initial wave, called a “P wave,” sent out by an earthquake.
“The P wave is first and fast. It travels out and ahead of the S wave, and it is not producing the shaking,” Crayne says. “The S wave is . . . the one that produces the real shaking and damage.”
ShakeAlert’s sensors send data to a processing center. Computers assess the earthquake’s magnitude and expected intensity. People receive emergency alerts on their smartphones, “Earthquake detected! Drop, cover, hold on. Protect yourself.”
ShakeAlert can also slow trains, open firehouse doors, start back-up generators, and turn off utilities.
“It’s very important that [the states in the CSZ] are all partners in ShakeAlert, because earthquakes don’t respect geographic boundaries,” says Gabriel Lotto of ShakeAlert. “We have huge population centers all across the West Coast where earthquake risk is the highest in the contiguous [United States].”