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Alaska lags far behind the West Coast's earthquake warning systems

WASHINGTON -- When the White House held a summit on earthquake preparedness last week, Alaska was conspicuously absent.

But back in the Last Frontier, many are struggling to catch up with the high-tech planning of other earthquake-prone places.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and a slew of earthquake experts went to the White House to discuss earthquake safety and announce that the U.S. Geological Survey and university partners were entering the "beta testing" phase of a new earthquake warning system for California, Washington and Oregon called ShakeAlert. And President Barack Obama released an executive order demanding resilience standards at federal facilities.

But nobody invited Alaska -- even though the nation's 10 largest earthquakes have been in Alaska, even though the residents of Anchorage had just felt the rumblings of a magnitude-7.1 quake the week before, even though the state's senior senator oversees the Interior Department budget, where they're hoping for funding to advance the system.

"I think it's safe to say that the absence of Alaska at anything called an earthquake resilience summit seems conspicuous, especially in light of the fact that we just dodged yet another very, very large earthquake," said state seismologist Mike West.

There was behind-the-scenes grumbling across the state -- particularly at one of Jewell's remarks at the event: "I did ask my team, 'Where's Alaska?' Alaska's very earthquake-prone."

"The state of Alaska was not invited to participate in this, (but) the governor's office has been in touch with the White House to express interest in participating in any future earthquake preparedness efforts," said Katie Marquette, Gov. Bill Walker's press secretary.

But other factors are in play. Alaska is simply not ready.

"Our seismic network would need considerable upgrading to be at a position where we could contemplate an early warning system," said Steven Masterman, the state's top geologist.

Japan's system

Japan has an early warning system, as do China, Turkey and Mexico, to varying degrees.

Japan's system has been in place since 2007. The nation's major phone carriers are on board, and the iPhone has supported early warnings since 2011.

Having anywhere from three to 30 seconds to prepare for an earthquake is useful for the average citizen, affording time to get under a desk to avoid falling objects, for instance.

But its main applications are automatic and industrial: Firehouse doors connected to sensors open automatically -- the fire trucks are often trapped behind jammed doors after earthquake. Trains automatically slow down to prevent derailments. Surgeons have time to lift the knife. Factories can halt operations or turn off gas lines.

During Japan's magnitude-9 earthquake in 2011, the alert went out and bullet trains -- traveling more than 200 miles per hour -- slowed, avoiding derailment.

"And you can imagine, just a single derailment going at that speed could have had significant impact," said David Applegate, associate director for natural hazards at USGS.

But Alaska, home to decades of research and daily earthquakes, doesn't have the kind of infrastructure onto which it could build an early warning system.

Unlike California and Washington, the state's detection equipment is not up to national standards. And before officials can even begin to discuss an earthquake warning system, the state's program has to get up to code.

"In order to develop a next-generation technology like earthquake early warning, you have to have in place already a strong earthquake monitoring system," West said. "Remember, earthquake monitoring systems exist specifically for the day when everything else isn't working right. So there's a level of resilience that needs to be built in."

In Alaska, "we have a long way to go," West said.

But West also thinks that in Alaska, an early warning system is "probably inevitable at some point. Whether that's two years or 20 years or 200 years, I don't know. Given the progress of technology, it's safe to say it probably will happen," he said.

So far, "it's been largely a research and development effort. And now we're getting closer to the point where we'll be able to have a fully operational system," Applegate said.

Applegate noted that USGS is "already working closely with" the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which he thought Jewell mentioned in her remarks. (Jewell actually said her team would "love to have a partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Anchorage, whomever," despite longstanding cooperation between UAF's Alaska Earthquake Center and USGS.)

"Anchorage is certainly one of the cities that would be a natural for future development of this future deployment of this ShakeAlert system," Applegate said.

First, there would have to be enough sensor stations across the state, as well as seismometers and computer systems that operate without any delay, to get the message out when the earth starts moving, Applegate said.

"With earthquake warning, it's not predicting the event but ... getting out ahead of the strong shaking to provide a warning," Applegate said.

Some of that will go to people's cellphones -- and that's a core part of the federal government's plan.

"You can, even with a few seconds, think about notifying schools and to be able to get kids under the desks before the shaking ... So there is definitely a public component to it," Applegate said.

But developers don't just have to deal with how to get the message to work -- they still have to figure out what message works, Applegate said. What does the warning sound like? How do you make sure people use it?

That and other issues make it clear that Alaska would have to have a different early warning system from the West Coast's -- with its own beta testing and its own algorithm.

Alerting Alaskans to every earthquake would likely result in a complacent reaction, given their numbers, West said. And because of how far many in the state are from the epicenter of each earthquake, there's also a lot of misunderstanding about the magnitude scale, he said.

"Nobody actually felt … the raw force of a magnitude-7 earthquake" in Anchorage two weeks ago, West said.

In Alaska, "we undervalue the magnitude scale for exactly this reason. I am actually deeply concerned that half of Alaska's population, at least, feels that they went through a magnitude-7 earthquake … And that's simply not true. They felt the distant rumblings of a magnitude-7 far over the horizon,." West likened it to hearing thunder and thinking you know what it's like to be struck by lightning.

The costs of early warning

The federal government and the states have been sparring over who should pay for the West Coast system, with private institutions like Amazon and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation picking up the slack. The fight is over millions of dollars -- not a massive sum in the California economy or the federal budget. Yearly operations are tagged at about $16 million, but much more to add technology for a top-of-the-line system.

No cost estimate is available yet for expanding to Anchorage, Las Vegas or other earthquake-prone cities that are not part of the current plans for early warning systems.

But USGS is working on a cost-benefit study "related to Alaska earthquake monitoring," and later this year, "we should have an estimate," Applegate said.

Meeting national standards would cost the state about $7 million annually, West said. But that's if the state already met the standards of the Advanced National Seismic System, which it doesn't.

"What concerns me is I think we need to be in a position as a state to actually implement such a system when the time comes. And I have deep concerns that … we do not have the fundamental capabilities onto which the system could be built," West said.

But the chance to upgrade the system is bearing down on the state right now.

Currently, the federal National Science Foundation is carrying out a $40 million program, known as Earth Scope, installing 260 sensors across Alaska for research purposes. The catch: They're going to take the sensors back in five years unless the state can scrape together the cash to buy and maintain them, at least in part of the state.

"The timing is now. Once the sites are removed, the opportunity will be gone," Masterman said. Funding to continue operation and maintenance at "a large subset" of the Earth Scope sites "would greatly increase the system capacity and substantially move Alaska forward toward an early warning system," Masterman said.

"It has presented Alaska with a spectacular opportunity to harden our backbone network, if you will, at a tremendously cheap cost, because somebody else -- the National Science Foundation -- is footing the bill to do all of this instrumentation all over the state," West said.

Another helpful factor is that Alaska's earthquakes offer more time for reaction than those in the Pacific Northwest.

The most recent magnitude-7.1 quake happened 150 miles from Anchorage, West said.

"One could have easily envisioned half a minute of earthquake early warning for an event like that, because it's far away," he said. "So that ... very much works in our advantage."

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