'ShakeAlert': WH Holds Summit on 'Earthquake Resilience'

By Susan Jones | February 3, 2016 | 9:50 AM EST

The inside of a Safeway store in south-central Alaska following a 6.8 magnitude earthquake on Jan. 24, 2016. (AP File Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - The Obama administration announced on Tuesday that it is now in the second test-phase of an earthquake early warning system that may someday alert people to move away from hazardous locations and "drop, cover, and hold on" before the strong shaking starts.

Earthquake early warnings, once fully operational, will be issued by the U.S. Geological Survey directly to public and private-sector electronic systems and to individual smartphones.

As envisioned, the "ShakeAlert" system also would trigger automated systems to ensure that elevators and fire station doors open; sensitive equipment is placed in a safe mode; and transportation systems have the ability to automatically slow down or stop.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the second phase of the "ShakeAlert" system at Tuesday's White House Earthquake Resilience Summit. She said the goal is to create and operate a "cost-effective earthquake early warning system for the highest risk areas of the United States, beginning with California, Washington and Oregon.

“While no one can predict earthquakes, the study of natural hazards and their causes and impacts has put us on the path to creating more effective tools to prevent these hazards from becoming disasters,” Jewell said.

The USGS says technology is now advanced enough to rapidly detect seismic waves as an earthquake begins, calculate the maximum expected shaking, and send early warnings to surrounding areas.

“Timely warnings of an earthquake could provide several seconds, and in some cases up to a minute or two, before the arrival of damaging shaking,” said USGS Director Dr. Suzette Kimball.

As part of the summit, President Obama on Tuesday issued an executive order "to improve the Nation's resilience to earthquakes."

The president's order directs the Federal Government to continue taking "proactive steps to enhance the resilience of buildings that are owned, leased, financed, or regulated by the Federal Government."

Earthquake early warning systems are currently operating in several countries, including Japan, China, Turkey and Mexico. Since 2006, the USGS has been working to develop earthquake early warning systems for the United States.

Earlier this week, USGS announced that there were 14,588 earthquakes of magnitude 4.0 or greater around the world in 2015. This worldwide number is on par with prior year averages of about 40 earthquakes per day of magnitude 4.0, or about 14,500 annually.

The 2015 number may change slightly as the final results are completed by seismic analysts at the USGS National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado.

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