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  • Q&A: ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system arriving in Pacific Northwest
    Wednesday, February 17, 2021

    After years in development, an earthquake early warning system known as ShakeAlert is on the cusp of being released in Oregon and Washington. The system that spans the West Coast was launched in California in late 2019. It launches to the public in Oregon on March 11, the 10th anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and in Washington in May.

    The system was developed through a partnership between the University of Washington and other West Coast universities and the U.S. Geological Survey working with state emergency management districts. The system uses ground sensors across the region to detect the first signals from a rupturing earthquake and then sends that information to computers and phones, providing seconds to tens of seconds of warning of an imminent earthquake.

    UW News sat down with Harold Tobin, professor of Earth and space sciences and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, to learn more.

    • Members of the PNSN will participate in a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" event about the ShakeAlert system at 11 a.m., Thursday, Feb. 18
    • To participate in a Feb. 25 test of the Wireless Emergency Alert earthquake alert, sign up here. All Washingtonians will be opted in when the ShakeAlert system launches in May.
    • The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network is hosting a virtual event at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 25, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Nisqually Earthquake
    • USGS: "ShakeAlert earthquake early warning delivery for the Pacific Northwest"

    How does it feel to be on the cusp of launching the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system in Oregon and Washington?

    The ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system has been a big and technically complicated thing to put together, so it has taken many years. It is really exciting and satisfying to see that all that effort and work by many people is coming to fruition. It's a collaboration between the USGS, us at the PNSN at UW an also our counterparts at University of Oregon, Berkeley and CalTech.

    The rollout for us has been somewhat incremental, in the sense that the system is functioning well now even as we work to improve our seismic network. We're detecting earthquakes, and alerts are being delivered to technical partners including emergency managers, utilities and schools.

    But the stage of broadcasting mass alerts is really a new step, and one that brings to fruition the dream of earthquake early warning. We're really excited about bringing this directly to the public, and taking the capability we've developed and actually putting it to use to increase public safety.

    You're director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, which includes both Oregon and Washington. Why are the two states' ShakeAlert systems launching at different times (and not to be petty,but whyis Washington last)?

    California had the most developed network of seismometers, it has the most frequent earthquakes and the largest earthquake hazard, since it has a lot of population right along the San Andreas fault. So it made a lot of sense for California to roll it out first in late 2019.

    Ultimately, ShakeAlert is one unified system for the whole West Coast. This is a collaboration between the ShakeAlert partners and state emergency management. Oregon chose the anniversary of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami for its launch date. Washington's Emergency Management Department wanted to do a bit more legwork to test the Wireless Emergency Alert system and to prepare the public, so chose to launch in May. We can think of it as a south-to-north progression for the West Coast-wide system.

    scientists in orange suits with mountains in distance

    Karl Hagel and Pat McChesney, field engineers with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network team at the University of Washington, install earthquake monitoring equipment on the slopes of Mount St. Helens, with Mount Hood in the distance.Marc Biundo/University of Washington

    How can people in the Puget Sound sign up for the test taking place in late February? And how can Washingtonians sign up for the actual earthquake early warning system when it goes live in May?

    Washington EMD and USGS have developed a simulated earthquake warning test message they will broadcast Feb. 25 on the Wireless Emergency Alert system, the nation's universal alerting system. The test will evaluate how the WEA system performs for earthquake early warning in the Puget Sound area. For technical reasons, WEA doesnot distribute alerts as fast as we'd like for earthquake warnings. A delay of 30 seconds might not matter for an Amber Alert, but for earthquake warning systems that would mean many alerts would arrive after the strong shaking has begun.

    You have to opt in for the test, which is for users in Pierce, King and Thurston counties. Once ShakeAlert goes live in May, earthquake alerts will go to anyone in Washington who hasn't opted out of the Wireless Emergency Alert system.

    There will be two other ways to get earthquake alerts. If you have an Android phone device, Google has embedded it in the mobile operating system in late 2020. So those devices in California are getting alerts now, and we expect Android alerts will go live in Washington in May. We hope other phone operating systems will follow suit. Another option will be to install on your device an app, like QuakeAlertUSA, built by one of the licensed ShakeAlert partners. We hope several of these apps will be available by the end of the year.

    Washington ShakeAlert is a collaboration between the USGS, Washington Emergency Management and the PNSN. Can you explain how the three groups collaborate?

    ShakeAlert is operated by the USGS in partnership with the PNSN and California seismic networks. The data that is generated to detect the earthquakes in Washington and Oregon comes from the PNSN, the seismic network operated out of the UW and the University of Oregon. We are direct partners in the research and development of this system. At the UW, we operate one of three computer systems that ingest the data and issue the alert messages; the others are at UC Berkeley and Caltech. There's a strong partnership between the PNSN and the USGS on earthquake detection and the continuing development of the system that issues the warnings. Washington Emergency Management is responsible for public safety, and so they are determining the types of public alerts that will be released, the messaging, public education and appropriate responses.

    This is a great example of a partnership among all those entities. We are all working toward this same goal, of increasing earthquake awareness and public safety.

    The PNSN began testing the system back in 2015 with early adopters. What have you learned from that experience?

    A system like this is complicated, and will reach everyone, so we have to test it really extensively. We're decreasing the number of false or missed alerts in our beta system. Just seeing more and more events has allowed us to improve the algorithms, to distinguish between a false alarmand a real signal, and to better pinpoint the magnitude and location of the earthquake. A typical time frame is now 2 seconds for our computers to decide on the location and magnitude of the earthquake and to generate the alert -- the pace that that happens is unbelievable.

    Now that the system is about to go public, how will other businesses, schools, organizations or agencies be able to incorporate these alerts into their emergency plans?

    The USGS licenses partners to develop products that take the ShakeAlert message and can connect to other systems. A number of those licensed partners offer systems that can be adopted, such as a box that can be hooked up to a school PA system and automatically issue a prerecorded message that alerts students to drop, cover and hold on. Any business that has staff in a facility can think about how they can incorporate earthquakeearly warnings into their own facility. ShakeAlert messages can also trigger automated actions to pause manufacturing processes, move elevators to the next floor and open the doors, close valves on reservoirs, and initiate other loss-reduction actions.

    What should someone do when they get their first "real" alert?

    When someone gets an alert, the appropriate action to take is to drop, cover and hold on. It's important to get under a protective cover. Most injuries from earthquakes in the U.S. are not from the catastrophic collapse of a building but from falling objects - lights, ceiling tiles, etc.

    If you're driving in a car, the appropriate action would be to pull over and stop the car, if possible. If you're in a building, stay in a building. The message is really to brace yourself -- drop, cover and hold on. That message, to pause and protect yourself, is key. (Washington Emergency Management has more tips here.)

    What about British Columbia? Will the earthquake early warning system extend across the border?

    Natural Resources Canada is working in parallel to develop an earthquake early warning system. We already use data from seismometers in Canada, and we incorporate that information in our alerts -- earthquake waves don't stop at the border.

    Can we expect any improvements or changes coming down the line?

    Yes, we're improving the system all the time. We are going live with this system because we know that it works, but we're also continuously improving the system. We have hundreds of seismic stations in place but we're adding dozens more, so that we can optimize the network to detect earthquakes wherever they occur within the region.

    We're also continuously improving the computer algorithms that detect the raw data and decide where and how big the earthquake is. Once it goes live, there will be no pause in improving the system. We would also love to add more offshore detection systems, since offshore quakes are a challenge to detect accurately.

    For me, this is an exciting example of science to action, of things that are driven by fundamental science and research in seismology that show the way to something that can do some tangible good for society -- to increase public safety. It's exciting to see that happening with the ShakeAlert system.


    For more information, contact Tobin at or Bill Steele, communications director at the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, at and 206-685-5880.

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  • Global heating to blame for threat of deadly flood in Peru, study finds | The Guardian
    Monday, February 8, 2021
    Human-caused global heating is directly responsible for the threat of a devastating flood in Peru that is the subject of a lawsuit against the German energy company RWE, according to groundbreaking new research. Gerard Roe, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • For a city staring down the barrel of a climate-driven flood, a new study could be the smoking gun | Inside Climate News
    Monday, February 8, 2021
    A lawsuit is leaning on the new research that found a global warming fingerprint on the melting glacier threatening to send an outburst flood into Huaraz, Peru. Gerard Roe, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Melting glacier study could hold climate polluters accountable | EcoWatch
    Monday, February 8, 2021
    New research shows global warming caused by human activity is to blame for a shrinking Andean glacier that threatens to flood 120,000 people and could be used to establish legal liability for polluters. The study, published in Nature Geoscience on Thursday by scientists at the University of Oxford and the University of Washington, found human activity caused the vast majority of temperature increases in the region. Read More
  • Human-made warming melting Peru glacier, says lawsuit-linked study | Thomas Reuters Foundation
    Friday, February 5, 2021
    Researchers conclude emissions from human activities are raising flood risk from a receding Andean glacier - a finding set to support a Peruvian farmer suing German utility RWE. Gerard Roe, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Glacial lake flooding directly linked to climate change for the first time | IFL Science
    Friday, February 5, 2021
    Floods from melting alpine glaciers look like one of the more obvious threats from global warming. Instead, they have turned out to be among the most controversial, even among scientists studying the topic. Now, for the first time, the flood risk to a specific city has been linked to the climate change-induced melting of a glacier above it, in research that could determine a court case of global significance. Gerard Roe, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • The deadly threat from the world's most dangerous lake is mostly our fault | Forbes
    Thursday, February 4, 2021
    In 1941, a chunk of a glacier is thought to have fallen into the Lake Palcacocha in Peru, triggering a massive flood that overtopped the natural moraine dam. The ensuing mudslide buried the town of Huaraz. Today, the population of Huaraz has swollen by more than four times and the volume of Palcacocha has also swollen to more than 30 times what it was, creating a ticking bomb. A study reaffirms global warming is a key culprit behind the looming threat above. Gerard Roe, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Global heating to blame for threat of deadly flood in Peru, study finds | The Guardian
    Thursday, February 4, 2021
    Research showing severe flood threat caused by global heating may set legal precedent in climate litigation. Gerard Roe, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Global warming found to be culprit for flood risk in Peruvian Andes, other glacial lakes
    Thursday, February 4, 2021

    Huaraz is a Peruvian city of about 120,000 residents that lies 1.8 miles (3 kilometers) above sea level, in view of Palcaraju Glacier and other peaks in the Cordillera Blanca mountains.Wikimedia

    rooftops in front of glacier

    As the planet warms, glaciers are retreating and causing changes in the world's mountain water systems. For the first time, scientists at the University of Oxford and the University of Washington have directly linked human-induced climate change to the risk of flooding from a glacial lake known as one of the world's greatest flood risks.

    The study examined the case of Lake Palcacocha in the Peruvian Andes, which could cause flooding with devastating consequences for 120,000 residents in the city of Huaraz. The paper, published Feb. 4 in Nature Geoscience, provides new evidence for an ongoing legal case that hinges on the link between greenhouse gas emissions and particular climate change impacts.

    "The scientific challenge was to provide the clearest and cleanest assessment of the physical linkages between climate change and the changing flood hazard," said co-author Gerard Roe, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences.

    In 2016, Roe and colleagues developed a method to determine whether an individual glacier's retreat can be linked to human-induced climate change. The retreat of mountain glaciers has several consequences, including creating basins in the space left by the retreating glacier. Precipitation and meltwater collects in these basins to form glacial lakes. Recent work has shown a rapid worldwide growth in the number and size of high-elevation glacial lakes.

    "We believe our study is the first to assess the full set of linkages between anthropogenic climate change and the changing glacial lake outburst flood hazard," Roe said. "The methods used in our study can certainly be applied to other glacial lakes around the world."

    green lake with glacier behind

    Lake Palcacocha last burst its banks in 1941, killing at least 1,800 people in the city of Huaraz. Known as one of the world's most dangerous lakes, its water level has risen in recent years with the shrinking of Palcaraju Glacier, which lies directly to the north.Georg Kaser/Wikimedia

    The new study first calculated the role of human emissions in the observed temperature increase since the start of the industrial era around Palcaraju Glacier. It finds that human activity is responsible for 95% of the observed 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warming in this region since 1880.

    The authors then used the UW-developed technique to assess the relationship between these warming temperatures and the observed long-term retreat of the glacier that has caused Lake Palcacocha to expand. Results show it is virtually certain, with greater than 99% probability, that human-induced climate change has caused Palcaraju Glacier's retreat.

    Lead author Rupert Stuart-Smith, a doctoral student at Oxford, then used two methods to assess the hazard of glacial lake outburst flooding, in which an avalanche, landslide or rockfall induces a tsunami wave that overtops the lake's banks, to pinpoint how Lake Palcacocha's growth affects the flood risk faced by the city of Huaraz below.

    grid of aerial views of growing lake

    Historical photographs (first three panels) and satellite images show how Lake Palcacocha has grown as the glacier has receded. The lake is now about 34 times its volume in 1970.Stuart-Smith et al./Nature Geoscience

    "We found that human influence on climate -- through greenhouse-gas emissions -- is responsible for virtually all of the warming that has been observed in the region," said Stuart-Smith, who spent the summer of 2019 at the UW. "The study shows that warming has caused the retreat of the Palcaraju Glacier, which in turn has greatly increased the flood risk."

    The study provides new evidence for an ongoing case in the German courts in which Sa?l Luciano Lliuya, a farmer from Huaraz, has sued RWE, Germany's largest electricity producer, for its role in creating global warming. The suit seeks reimbursement for current and future flood-risk reduction measures.

    "Crucially, our findings establish a direct link between emissions and the need to implement protective measures now, as well as any damages caused by flooding in the future," Stuart-Smith said.

    Nature Geoscience editorial: “Mountains of change

    This is not the first time Huaraz has been threatened by climate change. In 1941, an outburst flood from Lake Palcacocha, resulting from an ice and rock slide, killed at least 1,800 people. The study also found this flood to be influenced by human-induced climate change -- making it one of the earliest identified fatal impacts of climate change.

    The lake's recent growth strains decades of engineering efforts since the 1970s to contain the lake's water.

    "Around the world, the retreat of mountain glaciers is one of the clearest indicators of climate change," Roe said. "Outburst floods threaten communities in many mountainous regions, but this risk is particularly severe in Huaraz, as well as elsewhere in the Andes and in countries like Nepal and Bhutan, where vulnerable populations live in the path of the potential floodwaters."

    Other co-authors are Myles Allen and Sihan Li at the University of Oxford. The study was funded by the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council, the U.S. National Science Foundation and a grant from the University of Oxford.


    For more information, contact Roe at or Stuart-Smith at

    Adapted from a University of Oxford article.

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  • Seismic Network monitors recent tremor under Vancouver Island | Bellingham Herald
    Tuesday, February 2, 2021
    The UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network is monitoring an "out of the ordinary" series of nearly 3,000 small seismic events over the past week that have rattled just northwest of Whatcom County under Vancouver Island. Steve Malone, emeritus research professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More