Scientists Split On Early Earthquake Warning System In Utah

Feb 27, 2019, 10:06 PM | Updated: 10:37 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The Wasatch fault is 250 miles long, stretching from central Utah to southern Idaho. Eighty-five percent of Utahns live within 15 miles of the fault. Scientists forecast there’s a 50% chance of a major earthquake striking within 50 years.

Japan, Mexico, and the west coast of the United States have built, or are building, an earthquake early warning system.

Could a similar system work in Utah?

After 139 earthquakes in and around Bluffdale, residents felt jittery.

“It’s super unsettling because you don’t know if this is a foreshadow of a great catastrophe to come, or if it’s just the earth settling a little bit,” said Eagle Mountain resident Ashley Silvia.

University of Utah seismologist Jamie Farrell said small earthquakes can point to a larger one coming.

“Each event I think has something like a 1 in 20 chance of being a foreshock to a bigger event,” said Farrell.

He said scientists still can’t predict when an earthquake will strike.

“It’s been like the Holy Grail of seismology for a long time, and we’re just not there,” said Farrell.

Scientists are now zeroing in on new technology to detect when an earthquake hits quickly warn people of the danger.

Earthquakes send out “P” waves followed by “S” waves. The “P” waves travel faster, but the “S” waves cause the most damage. New technology is being developed and deployed to detect those “P” waves and alert people and earthquake has started, and shaking is coming.

“The idea with ShakeAlert is that you potentially get some warning ahead of when the shaking arrives at your location,” said Bob de Groot, staff scientist with ShakeAlert.

ShakeAlert is an early warning system being tested on the West coast of the United States. Studies have shown it could give people crucial seconds of advanced warning, anywhere from between 5-30 seconds.

Scientists hope the alert could help slow down trains, shut down dangerous machinery and stop surgeries — before the shaking starts.

De Groot said ShakeAlert has been in the works since 2006 and is not ready for every state.

“So, the very robust systems that are already in place in Utah and all over the United States are good, they’re fast. But we need something even faster for ShakeAlert, something that can transmit information within a fraction of a second,” said De Groot.

ShakeAlert requires seismic sensors and a state of the art system in place.

Building the system in California, Oregon, and Washington costs $40 million. Operating it will cost $29 million each year. Scientist disagree on whether Utah would benefit from a similar system.

“Most of the people here in Utah live on the Wasatch Front, which is really close to the source of the largest earthquake. So the closer you are to where the earthquake happens, the less early warning you get,” said Farrell.

“I think the benefit side outweighs the cost side,” said Utah geologist Michael Hylland.

He said a potential magnitude seven quake under Salt Lake City could cost $30 billion.

“An upfront investment on an earthquake early warning system in the tens of millions of dollars, you know, potentially you could be saving yourself money in the long run. And not just money though, but you, people’s safety,” said Hylland.

Utah’s leaders will have to weigh the costs and benefits of new earthquake technology. Installing a system at a similar price to the West Coast’s would cost double the state’s current emergency management budget, and could take 20 years to build out.

Whether or not the next big quake waits long enough for a system to be built is anybody’s guess.

“It could occur tomorrow, it could occur a hundred years from now. We just don’t know,” said Farrell.

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Scientists Split On Early Earthquake Warning System In Utah