Pierce College is among one of the first sites in Washington state to install Shak Alert. Graphic courtesy ShakeAlert

Pierce installs an alert system for earthquakes

Kathryn Scott

Print Reporter

A magnitude 9.0-9.1 earthquake hit the pacific coast of Japan in 2011. Between the earthquake and the following tsunami, more than 20,000 people were killed, displaced or injured. The damage totalled hundreds of billions of dollars. This is the type of damage residents in the Pacific Northwest could expect if the current levels of preparedness and education of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake remain the same. Pierce College officials, however, have taken steps to prepare with the installation of the U.S. Geological Survey ShakeAlert System.

“When the sensors sense an upcoming earthquake, they will automatically transmit that alert to our alerting system, which will go out in all the classrooms and everywhere else. We will have up to 60-seconds advance warning of an earthquake,” says Jeff Schneider, district director of campus safety.

This warning could be crucial in the case of an earthquake, he says, because an alert with as little as 15 seconds gives someone enough time to find shelter underneath something sturdy such as a piece of furniture. Schneider explains that the system is being installed at no additional cost to Pierce and that Pierce is possibly among one of the first colleges to receive the system.

ShakeAlert will use the internal alerting system of Pierce. ShakeAlert, a large system on the West Coast, is specially designed to detect an upcoming earthquake and alert residents in Washington, California and Oregon. While Schneider isn’t sure why Pierce was among the first selected, he said he’s assuming that it’s because Pierce is already in the process of installing a new alerting system that’s capable of accommodating ShakeAlert. It’s an earthquake early warning system, which means it doesn’t predict earthquakes but instead warns when one has already happened and will arrive soon. The system works by detecting primary waves arriving at seismometers closest to the center. P waves travel at about 3.7 miles per second through rock, are often the first to hit during an earthquake and aren’t as damaging as secondary waves.

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The seismometer that first detects a P wave signals a computer system that then determines the earthquake’s location and travel time for both P and S waves. The system will then alert individuals with how much time remains before the more damaging S waves occur. While there’s a chance that certain areas may be too close to the earthquake’s epicenter and therefore possibly in a blind spot, most areas are better off with some warning than all areas receiving no warning.

According to ShakeAlert’s website, the greatest areas at risk of earthquakes in America are along the West Coast, with about $4.5 billion earthquake-caused losses occurring between the aforementioned three states. Tom Bush, professor of earth and space sciences at Pierce, explains that earthquakes are not only common in the Pacific Northwest, but that a big one is expected.

“This kind of earthquake (CSZ) is going to be really bad. It is going to happen again, we just don’t know when. It could be a few hundred years or it could be sometime within the next decade, we just don’t have a way of knowing,” says Bush.

A CSZ earthquake is the result of the underthrusting of the Juan de Fuca plate beneath the North American plate. This converging plate tectonic boundary creates the CSZ (the Cascade mountains themselves are byproducts of the plates). Bush explains that smaller to medium size earthquakes, typically with magnitudes of 6.5 to 7, such as the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, are common in areas like the Puget Sound, Willamette Valley and surrounding lands. A CSZ, however, would be closer to a magnitude of 9-9.5. The hypocenter of a CSZ would be caused by something offshore, in the shallower part of the zone. The entire zone would rip like a zipper, Bush describes, and produce about six minutes of shaking. “Another big concern is liquefaction, where water-saturated ground behaves like quicksand during shaking. That also creates a lot of damage to structures,” Bush says.

Landslides would be another concern, as there were nine landslides in the region relating to the magnitude 6.8 Nisqually quake of 2001. Fires caused by broken gas pipelines and electrical lines would undoubtedly be a concern as well, according to Bush. This would be especially true for heavily-populated areas, like Seattle. While buildings on campus are built to earthquake standards, evacuation of them should only take place if it’s safe to do so. “If there’s an earthquake of any magnitude, basically an earthquake that you feel, we want people to evacuate the buildings and then we will evaluate,” Schneider says.

With the exception of trees, the area surrounding campus is relatively open and free from skyscrapers and other tall buildings, thus making evacuations potentially safer. However, if staying inside the building is deemed safer, find a sturdy piece of furniture to get beneath. Be cautious of door frames if their doors are hinged, as these hinges can swing the door and might give more harm than protection. Retrofitted buildings, (structures built to withstand earthquakes), are only able to help so much, however. Bush says one of the most important ways individuals can prepare for any disaster is to have a family disaster plan and kit.

Reliance on cellphones and landlines should be limited as, chances are, they’ll not be available. Out-of-area contacts are highly encouraged and smaller disaster kits, for places like vehicles and work, are always a good idea. Although disaster kits can be purchased, it’s important to remember the amount they provide. Bush explains that most disaster kits available for purchase typically provide for several days, while a CSZ earthquake might cause a need for several weeks. While kits and plans are crucial, one of the most basic ways of being prepared is simply being educated. Knowing what to do in an earthquake, or any disaster could mean life or death.

The consequences could be made less severe with a firm understanding of the risk and a disaster plan, although Bush says the population is, for the most part, far from that level of awareness. The ShakeAlert System can provide warning and potentially give individuals enough time to prepare for quaking.

“Duck, cover and hold if you’re inside. If you’re outside, get away from anything that could collapse. If you’re driving, pull over,” says Bush.

ShakeAlert is brand-new and the installment of the system at Pierce should be finished and operational mid-January

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Pierce installs an alert system for earthquakes

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