Oregon Rolls Out Public Alerting for Earthquakes on March 11, 2021
March 5, 2021
by Lucy Walsh
ShakeAlert®, the West Coast Earthquake Early Warning System, will be delivered publicly over WEA, Android OS, and push notification apps.
TL;DR: On March 11, 2021 ShakeAlert® will be publicly available in Oregon. When a significant earthquake occurs, alerts will be delivered automatically through the systems below when specific earthquake magnitude and local shaking intensity alerting thresholds are met:
- Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) System (very similar to AMBER Alerts)
- Android Operating System alerts, for Android devices
- The push notification apps QuakeAlertUSA and MyShake, which can be downloaded from the Apple Store or Google Play for free
- Other apps will become available; the public should look for apps that indicate “Powered by ShakeAlert”
Oregonians will receive alerts via WEA automatically, meaning there is no sign up required. The same is true for Android OS alerts, if you have an Android phone. We encourage you to take the extra step and check to make sure your phone’s settings enable WEA and OS alerts. Push notification apps can be downloaded from the Apple Store or Google Play.
We’ve all heard of the Pacific Ring of Fire - a 25,000 mile-long region that outlines the northern and southern hemispheres of the Pacific Ocean and also the Pacific Plate. Eighty percent of the world’s earthquakes occur along tectonic plate boundaries where tectonic plates come together and build up stress as they attempt to get by, under, or over one another. When the strain is too much the plates suddenly slip past each other, releasing the energy in the form of an earthquake.
This sudden release of energy creates seismic waves that travel through the Earth’s crust and make the ground shake. Earthquakes don’t occur instantaneously; instead, faults underground rupture like a zipper opening over seconds or tens of seconds.
Just off the Oregon Coast lies the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a major tectonic plate boundary. When these “locked” plates finally release, the result will be a powerful earthquake capable of causing extensive damage to homes, buildings, and infrastructure across the state, with additional destruction from a tsunami that will inundate our coastal communities.
Tectonics in Oregon also produce deep earthquakes, like the 2001 Nisqually, WA earthquake which shook our region for tens of seconds, as well as shallow, crustal earthquakes such as the 1993 “Spring Break Quake” which caused concentrated local damage in and around Scotts Mills, OR.
Seismic Station WEDR, located in Wedderburn, OR. This station, and others across Oregon, contribute data to ShakeAlert®.
Thanks to continued investment by the State of Oregon, a network of seismic sensors deployed across Oregon are constantly measuring and communicating ground motion. When an earthquake occurs, fast working algorithms at USGS data processing centers determine that an earthquake has happened and rapidly begin to estimate the location of the rupturing fault, the magnitude - or strength - of the earthquake, and the estimated shaking intensities across the affected area.
Seismic waves move fast, but not faster than the speed of sound when moving through rock (10,000 mph). Meanwhile, information recorded by seismometers is sent to processing centers at virtually the speed of light (670,616,629 mph). Algorithms take just a few seconds to calculate the intensity and area of shaking, and just a few more seconds to send out a ShakeAlert® earthquake early warning message before shaking arrives.
ShakeAlert® is the US West Coast early earthquake warning system. Immediately after an earthquake begins, ShakeAlert detects the earthquake quickly enough to alert people and automated systems seconds before shaking arrives. By providing advanced warning for the arrival of strong shaking at any location, ShakeAlert can save lives and reduce injuries. ShakeAlert is not earthquake prediction.
On March 11, 2021 ShakeAlert will be publicly available in Oregon. There will be multiple ways to receive public earthquake early warnings, including mobile apps and emergency alerts on cell phones. Starting March 11, anyone within the state boundary of Oregon could receive an earthquake early warning alert from the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system, native OS Android alerts, and/or USGS-approved “Powered by ShakeAlert'' cell phone apps. For WEA and Android OS alerts, no action needs to be taken on March 11 and no sign up is required. “Powered by ShakeAlert” push notification apps can be downloaded from the Apple Store or Google Play. Currently, there are two approved and available push notification apps for Oregon: MyShake and QuakeAlertUSA.
Before an alert is sent out to the public, the earthquake must meet USGS minimum thresholds that correspond to a potentially damaging magnitude and a location-specific shaking intensity. If an earthquake is small and not expected to cause damage, even if it is expected to produce minor shaking, a ShakeAlert Message will not be generated. USGS made this decision to reduce the potential personal anxiety from “over-alerting”.
If you receive an earthquake early warning alert or feel an earthquake, immediately “Drop, Cover, and Hold On.” Get low to the ground, cover your head and neck, and if possible take cover under a nearby table or desk, holding onto the leg so that you move with it.
Since 2016, ShakeAlert has been available operationally for automatic action systems in Oregon. Automated actions triggered by a ShakeAlert Message are extremely important - these resilient actions lessen the immediate and secondary impacts from a large earthquake and promote a quicker return to normal operations...and thus daily life. USGS-approved partners are working to develop more uses of automated actions upon receiving a ShakeAlert Message. In this way, many Oregonians will benefit from ShakeAlert without their immediate knowledge. For example, ShakeAlert may be used to slow trains to prevent derailment, throttle water utility valves to prevent loss of drinking water from ruptured pipelines, and open firehouse doors so they are not stuck shut preventing first response.
Geologists tell us there is a 10% to 14% chance over the next 50 years that the Cascadia Subduction Zone will generate a magnitude 9-plus earthquake that will impact Oregon statewide, as well as Northern California, Washington, and British Columbia. Within that same timeframe, there is a 30% chance of the Cascadia Subduction Zone generating a magnitude 8 to 9 earthquake near Southern Oregon and Northern California, an 84 percent chance of a deep within-slab earthquake in the Puget Sound Region with additional risk for deep earthquakes throughout Western Oregon, and a 15 percent chance of a shallow crustal earthquake of magnitude 6.5 or greater somewhere in the Puget Sound Region. There is a smaller but significant chance of a damaging crustal earthquake in Oregon, such as the 1993 Scotts Mills “Spring Break Quake” and the magnitude 6.0 and 5.9 Klamath Falls area quakes of that same year.
With publicly available earthquake early warning alerts, it’s time to start thinking about what to do next. How can you communicate about ShakeAlert to your community? How can you invest in automated alerts? How will you use the time provided to you before shaking starts to take effective action? Most entities already have the infrastructure in place to receive earthquake early warning alerts. They just need a connection to the ShakeAlert System.
To learn more about the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System, the Oregon public rollout, or how to become a USGS-approved ShakeAlert Partner, visit ORShakeAlert.us.
Lucy Walsh, Oregon’s ShakeAlert Coordinator, works at the University of Oregon, within the Oregon Hazards Lab. The Oregon Hazards Lab, a core member of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, manages the Oregon seismic network and is actively building a multi-hazards network for real-time monitoring and mitigation of natural hazards, with focus on ShakeAlert and the deployment of ALERTWildfire cameras for early fire detection and suppression.