An early alert system designed to warn people about earthquakes ahead of the onset of possibly dangerous tremors is being trialled in the US northwest.
Called the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, the system will provide warning between several seconds and several tens of seconds ahead, allowing people time to seek shelter.
Developed by Universities of Washington and Oregon in cooperation with the US Geological Survey, the system analyses data from hundreds of seismic sensors located around the Pacific Northwest.
By detecting the first bout of energy coming from the quake’s epicentre, the system can predict the earthquake before the tremors spread and identify areas possibly at risk. A loud siren accompanied by a vocal announcement then delivers the alert to institutions in the risk area.
Local organisations including hospitals, utilities as well as major local companies such as Boeing and Microsoft, are involved in the trial, which, the researchers hope, will validate the system ahead of its release to the public.
"The test group is a cross-section of our region's economy so we can find the best ways of reducing losses from the next earthquake," explained director John Vidale, a professor of Earth and space sciences at the University of Washington.
"Eventually, we want to provide simple, fast and uniform coverage to protect the citizens and infrastructure," Vidale said.
The technology, based on a similar tool developed for California, will issue an alert for any earthquake above the magnitude of three. Such events occur somewhere in Washington and Oregon about every two to three weeks.
Japan developed a warning system after the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake, which caused 6,000 deaths. When the system picks up an earthquake, the public is warned via television and radio stations, cell phone alerts and loud speakers.
The Pacific Northwest is part of the Ring of Fire, which arcs around the Pacific Ocean and is home to more than 400 volcanoes and 90 per cent of the world's earthquake activity.
In 2013, the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission issued a report warning that as many as 10,000 people could die when, not if, a massive earthquake and tsunami occurs in a fault off the Pacific Northwest coast.