Utah is looking into getting an early warning system to help predict earthquakes

Feb 1, 2024, 6:34 PM | Updated: Feb 2, 2024, 7:07 am

SALT LAKE CITY — How much would it be worth to get notified of an earthquake 16 seconds before it happened? Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, said $5 million.

That’s how much he’s asking the Natural Resources Appropriations Committee to prioritize so Utah can get an early warning system to predict earthquakes.

Experts with the Utah Geological Survey tell KSL TV if a quake happened in Brigham City, an early warning system could notify residents in Ogden one second early, those in Salt Lake City 16 seconds early, and anyone in Provo 33 seconds early.

Currently, Utah has about 170 compatible sensors for the early warning system. They’re dug into the ground and concentrated around the Wasatch Front, and they feather out around the state.

Scientists at the University of Utah said they need about 80 more sensors, placed about 12.5 miles apart, and to upgrade some of their existing technology to get the system up and running.

A map of all the seismograph stations in Utah provided by the U of U.

A map of all the seismograph stations in Utah provided by the U of U. (KSL TV)

Owens says that with the money, the system could even integrate into things like Frontrunner, to stop a train automatically if a quake was detected.

“You think about the loss of life that could occur in a train, in that train situation where you can you’re able to slow down the train and not have it go off the tracks at 80 miles an hour. That could save hundreds of lives. That’s worth $5 million,” he said.

Dr. Emily Morton, a research scientist at the University of Utah Seismograph Stations, said they would also work to integrate this system with phone companies so people could be alerted on their phones. Utility companies could be automated to shut off gas, power, and water lines.

“So now we can identify and locate an earthquake within minutes. If we upgrade our telemetry and add more stations, then it would be a matter of seconds,” Morton said.

Experts warn that the aftermath of the quake could exacerbate the loss of life.

“You have fires; you lose access to those utilities for months. And if that’s something we can prevent in the short term, that makes coming back from the earthquake damage better,” Morton said.

Morton showing the new equipment that would be used for the updated system.

Morton showed the new equipment that would be used for the updated system. (KSL TV)

She said they are also working with the U.S. Geological Survey to supplement the request with federal money. She estimates this system could be working within five years if they can get enough.

“The last big earthquake was probably 200 or 300 years ago. So yeah, (a big quake) could happen at any time, probably sooner than 1,000 years. But yeah, we just, we don’t know,” Morton said.

Owens says there’s more than enough reason to fund this.

“Our geologists see the need for it. The science is there. The connectivity through the Internet is there to help in this situation. So it’s something we ought to be thinking hard about,” he said.

Rep. Owen's speaking about the next steps of the proposed system.

Rep. Owens speaking about the next steps of the proposed system. (KSL TV)

The request for the money will go through the normal legislative process for appropriations, and the committee members vote on their priorities. The chair then brings them to the Executive Appropriations Committee. They come out with a final funding bill that members of the House and Senate vote on.

The powerful Executive Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet twice more before the end of the session on March 1.

“To predict it will be to jinx it,” Owens said. “So, I’m not going to, I’m just going to work on it and try to get the money.”

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Utah is looking into getting an early warning system to help predict earthquakes