Earthquake Early Warning System Delayed by Fight Over Cost

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An early-warning earthquake system that could save thousands of lives in the event of a catastrophic temblor on the West Coast has been delayed due to a battle over who should fund the pricey project.

The ShakeAlert system, currently being tested in California, could deliver invaluable seconds of warning before a serious earthquake hits, allowing trains to slow down, building elevators to open on the next floor and vehicles to stop moving. The system relies on hundreds of deep underground sensors that can detect the Earth’s movement and then relay that data to people’s cell phones, computers and televisions.

However, according to the Los Angeles Times, California needs roughly 720 more underground sensors to make the system more efficient, and Washington and Oregon need an additional 250 sensors between them. With the total cost of the project estimated at $38 million (plus an additional $16 million in annual operating costs), state and federal officials are locked in a battle over who should be responsible for paying for it.

The federal government appropriated $8.2 million to development of the early-warning system in this year’s budget, according to UC Berkeley’s Berkeley News. At Tuesday’s Earthquake Resilience Summit at the White House, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation pledged an addition $3.6 million to the project, bringing the private foundation’s total investment to close to $10 million.

But the foundation’s money will be used primarily on research and development of the system, not on its operation. That leaves the project tens of million of dollars in the hole, and state officials from California, Washington and Oregon have not yet committed to paying for it.

According to the Times, California’s Governor’s Office of Emergency Services was tasked in 2013 with finding funding sources for the project, but was instructed not to consider using money from the state’s general fund. The office has not yet issued a report, but California Department of Finance deputy director H.D. Palmer told the paper that state policy precluded general fund money from being used on the early-warning system.


Many countries that have suffered from devastating earthquakes already utilize early-warning systems, including Japan, Taiwan, Turkey and Mexico.