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State continues work to install earthquake early-warning system despite COVID-19

KOMO-TV Seattle logo KOMO-TV Seattle 1 day ago Abby Acone, KOMO News meteorologist/reporter
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The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has not slowed work to track earthquake activity around Western Washington, and in fact, experts say they have made more progress in their efforts than ever before in a single year.

The work has been ongoing as the 20th anniversary of the devastating Nisqually earthquake nears.

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On Feb. 28, 2001, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake rocked parts of Puget Sound. Although the shaking lasted less than one minute, the impact of the Nisqually quake has loomed large over the region for the past two decades, leading to big changes in how scientists track these natural disasters.

"As you knew it, it wasn’t going to be the same," said Burton Walls, who lives in Seattle.

During the Nisqually earthquake, hundreds of people were hurt and it has been blamed for billions of dollars in economic losses, and not just damaging homes but big bridges in the area and iconic buildings.

The day Puget Sound shook

"Oh, it was scary," said Ralene Walls, who lives in Seattle and has vivid memories of the day. "We lived at that time in an old house in Queen Anne and it was over 100 years old." 

Caption: Sam Zimbabwe, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, talks about the state's effort to upgrade its earthquake early warning notification system.

In the back of your mind, you know there’s another one coming," said Elizabeth Gable, another Seattle resident who shared recollections of the earthquake.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone that runs along the Washington coast gets a lot of attention, but experts say there is an 84 percent chance the state could see another Nisqually-type event during the next 50 years. Officials warn that a local quake located along the Seattle fault could be devastating and produce a resulting tsunami that could wipe out entire neighborhoods.

Early warnings for earthquakes

That's why scientists are working rapidly to upgrade existing technology around the region.

In the last year, 59 earthquake sensors have been installed around Western Washington, an increase of about 20 percent.

Caption: Sam Zimbabwe, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, talks about the state's effort to upgrade its earthquake early warning notification system.

"Our seismic sensors are a way of listening to what the earth is doing," said Dr. Harold Tobin, a University of Washington professor in the Earth and Space Sciences Department and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, adding that dozens of additional sensors are set to be installed this year with the hope that better earthquake detection can allow for more warning time. "Our computers calculate what the magnitude would be and blast out the potential for public alert again within just a few seconds (or) a handful of seconds after the earthquake begins." 

Tobin says a warning of mere seconds can be crucial in preventing injuries or even deaths.

Caption: The state{{ }} is working on building out a system to provide an early warning alert for earthquakes and tsunamis.

 Those new sensors are also key elements in the new, much-anticipated Earthquake Early Warning System, known as ShakeAlert,  where sensors detect rumblings in the Earth’s core and create an alert message, instantly sending that warning straight to people's cell phones. 

Officials hope to launch that early warning system in May. 

Twenty-eight new tsunami sirens are scheduled to be installed this year along the coast and off the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Salish Sea, 

Maximilian Dixon, Hazards and Outreach program supervisor at the Washington State Emergency Management Division, said the number of new tsunami sirens is increasing by 50 percent in 2021 over the prior year. 

They are "critical in the sense that for some of the highest risk areas, we still didn’t have full coverage on the outer coast," Dixon said, adding that the 120 sirens will alert communities most at risk of a catastrophic tsunami and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives. "Being able to complete this siren network has been phenomenal for us, and it’s great (and) absolutely essential for life-safety for the public."

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