Earthquake ‘amber alert’ software to be tested in B.C.

New software being tested in B.C. and the U.S. Pacific Northwest is like the Amber Alert of earthquake warning.

The ShakeAlert software was developed by Washington’s Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) in conjunction with the California Institute of Technology, the University of California-Berkeley, and Swiss university ETH Zurich.

While the warning system’s focus is on Washington, Oregon and northern California, it’s also being tested by Ocean Networks Canada, Emergency Management B.C. and Natural Resources Canada.

The Amber Alert program sends out distinctive warnings on radio, television and even highway signage in cases of child abductions.

But to be effective, according to PNSN director John Vidale, earthquake warnings have to go out in seconds rather than the five minutes it takes to post an Amber Alert.
The system could be critical in the case of the major, magnitude 9 earthquake that Vidale said is predicted to have a 15-per-cent chance of occurring in the next 50 years.

“It takes several minutes to happen,” Vidale said of a quake that would register on seismometers and be passed on to the software to issue warnings.

“It might happen off Oregon and we’d have several minutes to prepare,” said Vidale, a professor at the University of Washington who is also the state’s seismologist.

The software is being tested by companies such as Boeing, Microsoft and Sound Transit, along with hospitals, utilities and emergency managers.

Warnings could be used to abort plane landings, slow trains or traffic and stop surgeries.

In B.C., scientific non-profit Ocean Networks Canada will test the American software, but it also has its own system, which director of engagement Benoit Pirenne said is called the Web-enabled Awareness Research Network (WARN).

“We could still go independently or decide their system is better and … adopt it,” said Pirenne. “What would be really important is to be able to access each of our sensor networks.”

If the test is successful, Vidale said, a U.S. coastal warning system could be in place within two to three years.

The other concern is funding, which is dependent on the U.S. government.

Vidale estimates just the U.S. portion of the warning system would cost $16 million annually to operate and maintain.

There are 240 seismometers in Oregon and Washington.

Ocean Networks Canada has just purchased 10 seismometers and has access to several more that belong to Natural Resources Canada, which did not respond to a request for an interview.


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