On the Site:


Experts say early earthquake detection is feasible in Utah. Here’s how it works

Oct 17, 2023, 10:57 AM

Magna earthquake damage from 2020...

A 5.7-magnitude earthquake with an epicenter near Magna rocked the Wasatch Front on March 18, 2020. (KSL TV)


SALT LAKE CITY — Utah earthquake experts found nearly a decade ago that there’s a 57% chance a 6.0 magnitude or greater earthquake will strike the heart of the Wasatch Front in the next four decades.

Despite a 5.7 magnitude earthquake that rattled the region three years ago, Utah Geological Survey director Bill Keach says the risk for an even larger earthquake only continues to climb.

“Our probabilities are higher today — today, greater than 1 in 2,” he told members of the Utah Legislature‘s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee last Wednesday.

He said there’s a “real” risk for an even stronger earthquake, which would be catastrophic to Utah’s urban core. Keach points out that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake would be 20 times bigger and 89 times stronger than the 2020 event.

This means the cost of a major earthquake would rise significantly from the $70 million to $150 million in costs three years ago to something much greater. There’s no telling how many more lives would be at risk, too.

This threat is why the Utah Legislature — using recommendations outlined by the Utah Seismic Safety Commission — set aside $150,000 toward a study to evaluate the feasibility of early earthquake detection last year. It can’t predict earthquakes, but it can warn Utahns a few moments in advance of an impending major earthquake so they have at least a little time to take cover before buildings begin to shake.

Keach presented the committee with the results of the yearlong study compiled by multiple earthquake and emergency experts in the state, summarizing that it is possible for Utah to deploy early detection technology to warn residents. This, he said, could potentially save lives — especially for those a little ways away from an earthquake epicenter.

“Our goal is to get tens of seconds,” he said. “We have a ‘no alert zone,’ but there’s a lot of people that can get alerted. … The answer is ‘yes,’ it’s feasible to do this.”

How does early detection work?

Early detection systems already exist in other parts of the world. One of these is ShakeAlert, which went into a public rollout in California in 2019 and has since become functional across the Pacific Coast.

Here’s how it works. Every earthquake releases what are called “P” and “S” waves, which travel in different ways, according to the Seismological Facility for the Advancement of Geoscience. P waves move parallel to the epicenter of an earthquake under the Earth’s surface, while the S wave moves perpendicularly at the same time, creating the shaking of the surface that people feel during an earthquake.

Early warning system technology tracks P waves because they travel faster than S waves. Once a sensor detects them, the data is sent to a processing center, which issues an alert shortly before any shaking is felt in many cases.

That said, P and S waves move simultaneously at the epicenter, which means there’s no way to alert those directly above the epicenter of an earthquake, Keach explained to the committee.

Warning times would vary depending on the location of an earthquake. For example, Salt Lake City residents would only have about 2 seconds’ notice if a 7.0 magnitude earthquake occurred at the same Magna epicenter as the 2020 earthquake. However, Ogden residents would have 7 seconds and Provo residents would have 17 seconds to prepare after the warning, per a document given to the committee.

Yet any warning time, while short, can be important for many reasons. Researchers sent out a questionnaire to a small group of residents across wide-ranging industries, who said warnings could allow time for people to seek protection and safety, allow time for auto-shutoff of “critical lifeline systems” and also allow jails and prisons to go into lockdowns before the shaking begins.

About 9 out of every 10 people surveyed said they believe early detection information would be valuable to have for these reasons.

What would it cost?

The report estimates that it would cost about $4.8 million in one-time costs to upgrade earthquake telemetry along the Wasatch Front, as well as close to $1 million in ongoing operation and maintenance costs associated with it.

Keach calls it a “bargain” because it’s a fraction of what it took to develop the ShakeAlert system and it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of a major earthquake. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials estimate that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake could cost Utah $80 billion in short-term economic losses alone.

FEMA also lists Utah as having the country’s fourth-highest earthquake risk behind the Pacific Coast states. Researchers recommend that Utah seek partnerships with the federal government to bring ShakeAlert to Utah and make the necessary upgrades to help it function at its best along the Wasatch Front.

The system would be expanded out into central and southwest Utah at some point too, which would cost about another $7 million, Keach said.

It’s too early to know yet if the Utah Legislature will set aside the requested money. Utah’s 2025 fiscal year budget will be finalized by the end of the next legislative session, which wraps up on March 1, 2024.

Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, offered an enthusiastic endorsement at the end of the presentation, noting that a University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute report released two days before the meeting suggested that Utah should invest more than the already “historical levels” directed to future needs.

Utah lawmakers have already put money toward other improvements the Utah Seismic Safety Commission recommended in 2022. In addition to the feasibility study, $50 million was directed toward some of the seismic improvements for water aqueducts along the Wasatch Front, the top concern the commission listed at the time.

The Legislature also awarded Utah State University $2.5 million earlier this year to help it launch its new Earthquake Engineering Center, which aims to help the state plan for earthquake resiliency rapid recovery whenever “the big one” strikes.

KSL 5 TV Live

Local News

police lights...

Eliza Pace

One dead in Sandy shooting by US Marshal’s taskforce

A person was shot and killed by a U.S. Marshal's task force at Silver Pines Senior Community Friday afternoon.

10 minutes ago

Weber State University Main Campus (KSL TV)...

Luke Seaver

Utah System of Higher Education moves to scrap in-state college application fees

The Utah Board of Higher Education voted Friday to eliminate in-state college application fees, according to a press release from Trisha Dugovic, director of communication for the Utah System of Higher Education.

1 hour ago

Follow @KSL5TVLike us on Facebook...

Karah Brackin

Dozens of Utah companies aim to bring Santa to thousands of families with Operation: Santa’s Stash

Right now, dozens of Utah companies are coming together to make Christmas happen with the goal of serving 10,000 families in the state.

3 hours ago

(Salt Lake City Police Department)...

Eliza Pace

Driver injured after high speed crash in SLC neighborhood, hitting two cars

A driver was injured in a high-speed crash in the East Liberty Park Neighborhood, hitting two parked cars. 

6 hours ago

emergency lights...

Pat Reavy, KSL.com

2 officers injured, 1 man arrested following lengthy chase in Utah County

Two police officers suffered minor injuries while trying to arrest a man who refused to pull over early Friday, hit a parked car and then ran from officers.

7 hours ago

Zeke Gregory Best and his father, Jeremy Albert Best are shown. Idaho State Police issued an Amber ...

Josh Ellis

Idaho Amber Alert issued after mother found dead, father allegedly abducts 10-month-old son

Authorities are searching for a 48-year-old man they say killed his wife in Teton County, Idaho, and fled the area with their 10-month-old son Friday morning.

7 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

Users display warnings about the use of artificial intelligence (AI), access to malicious software ...

Les Olson

How to Stay Safe from Cybersecurity Threats

Read our tips for reading for how to respond to rising cybersecurity threats in 2023 and beyond to keep yourself and your company safe.

Design mockup half in white and half in color of luxury house interior with open plan living room a...

Lighting Design

Lighting Design 101: Learn the Basics

These lighting design basics will help you when designing your home, so you can meet both practical and aesthetic needs.

an antler with large horns int he wilderness...

Three Bear Lodge

Yellowstone in the Fall: A Wildlife Spectacle Worth Witnessing

While most people travel to this park in the summer, late fall in Yellowstone provides a wealth of highlights to make a memorable experience.

a diverse group of students raising their hands in a classroom...

Little Orchard Preschool

6 Benefits of Preschool for Kids

Some of the benefits of preschool for kids include developing independence, curiosity, and learning more about the world.

Experts say early earthquake detection is feasible in Utah. Here’s how it works