Scientists said the loss of federal funding would derail the early warning system, which officials hope would one day alert the public just before earthquakes happen.

Share story

LOS ANGELES — President Donald Trump’s budget would eliminate federal funding for an earthquake early warning system being developed for the West Coast, which if enacted would likely kill the long-planned effort.

The budget proposal for the year ending in September 2018 also seeks to eliminate U.S. funding for critical tsunami-monitoring stations in oceans and reduce funds for a next-generation weather forecasting system.

Scientists said the loss of federal funding would derail the early warning system, which officials hope would one day send public earthquake alerts to smartphones seconds or even minutes before a temblor.

“It probably would kill the early warning system if we thought there were no more funding coming from the U.S. Geological Survey,” said John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and a seismology professor at the University of Washington.

Prepare for an earthquake

Earthquakes may be unpredictable — but they are also inevitable. Here are some tips to help you get ready before the next one hits.

“The money we’ve received is essential,” he said.

More on earthquakes

In a statement announcing the USGS budget, the Department of the Interior said the budget “focuses on core USGS science and efficiency,” and asserted that the budget would be able to fund monitoring of the nation’s earthquakes. But the budget document posted on the U.S. Department of Interior’s website did not elaborate on the reason for cutting the alert system, saying only: “This elimination would end USGS efforts to implement the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system.”

The earthquake early warning system, being built by the USGS in conjunction with several major universities, still needs more seismic sensors installed across Washington, Oregon and Northern California, and it needs a staff of 40 to 50 people to install and maintain equipment as well as monitor the computer systems.

Already, hiring has proved difficult. Since Trump was inaugurated, new hires for the network have not been approved. “There are people we’ve identified and interviewed and we’d like to hire them as soon as we have permission,” Vidale said. “These are the people who would keep the computer doing what we need to to get the early warning system up and operating.”

Without ongoing funding, the ShakeAlert system would need to lay off employees, said Tom Heaton, a California Institute of Technology professor of engineering seismology.

“If that funding went away, we would have to lay off a number of the developers and the development would basically cease,” Heaton said. “I’m not sure how we could possibly recover from that.”

Such a blow would likely cause Heaton, who said he is nearing retirement, to work on other issues.

“I’ve been kind of excited at the possibility we’ll have a system up and running by the time my career was done. That hope would be dashed in that case,” Heaton said.

Companies have started to notice the potential benefits of an earthquake early warning system. Intel, for example, “is very eager to use early warning to make their manufacturing safer,” Vidale said. Computer companies can use seconds of warning before shaking comes to halt sensitive manufacturing processes — preventing equipment from clanging together and being damaged in the shaking. That would enable factories to resume operations much faster after the earthquake.

And factories using toxic chemicals can prevent problems by securing operations before shaking arrives, too, Vidale said. And just telling people that shaking is coming so that they can drop, cover and hold on could save lives and reduce injuries.

“This is a simple technology. We know how to do it,” Vidale said. “Even Mongolia is doing it.”

The budget proposal would also reduce $800,000 in funding for earthquake monitoring in Alaska and the central and eastern United States, where earthquakes are a risk on the East Coast, in the South and in the Midwest. The reduction may “slow the rate of updates to seismic provisions in building codes and provide less science to support risk mitigation actions. The USGS would also suspend its annual forecast of hazard related to both natural and induced seismicity.”

An additional $561,000 would be cut under the proposal from earthquake hazards operations, diminishing the government’s ability to monitor and report on earthquakes, assess earthquake hazards, and send earthquake results to emergency responders, the budget document said.

A champion of the earthquake early warning system, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said it would be foolish to end it.

“After years of educating the public and Congress to the benefits of the earthquake early warning system, we have been able to deliver $23.4 million in federal funding to help build out an early warning system across the West Coast,” Schiff said in a statement.

“But we cannot stop now, just as monitoring stations are being built out and the system is expanding its reach. Support for the early warning system in Congress is sustained, growing and bipartisan, and we will not accept this attempt by the president to cut a vital funding stream for a program that will protect life, property and critical infrastructure,” Schiff said.

A spokesman for Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., who serves on the House appropriations committee, said late Thursday that the congressman was on a plane and could not be immediately reached to comment on the proposal to end funding for the earthquake early warning system.

He referred to an earlier statement on the overall budget, which said: “The budget also proposes some reductions for agencies that fall within the Interior Subcommittee’s jurisdiction. Those agencies perform important work, so the members of our committee will be faced with making some difficult decisions.”

The United States is far behind other nations in developing an earthquake early warning system. In Japan, for instance, national TV broadcasts and cellphones are interrupted with warnings about incoming shaking, and for significant quakes high-speed trains automatically slow down, as slower speeds reduce the threat of a deadly derailment.

“All of Japanese society is very happy for their early warning system. Nobody in Japan really wants to turn it off. They view it as a great step ahead for them. Californians will, too,” Heaton said.

In the last few years, lawmakers in Washington and in Sacramento have started to devote significant dollars to developing the system.

In fact, the budget deal reached in Congress for the current budget year that ends in September penciled in $10.2 million for the system, which represented an increase from the previous year’s $8.2 million for the system. The system needs about $16.1 million a year in yearly operating and maintenance costs, and $38.2 million to build it.

The earthquake early warning system works on a simple principle: The shaking from an earthquake travels at about the speed of sound through rock — slower than the speed of today’s communications systems. That means it would take more than a minute for, say, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that starts at the Salton Sea to shake up Los Angeles, 150 miles away, traveling on the state’s longest fault, the San Andreas.

The prototype system has had some early successes. When a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hit Napa in 2014, the system gave researchers in San Francisco about eight seconds of warning before shaking began. Last year, 30 seconds of warning reached downtown L.A. before the ground shook from a magnitude 4.4 quake centered near Banning.

As the system gets built, officials have talked about allowing places such as classrooms, offices, shopping malls, amusement parks and police and fire stations to have ready access to alerts. Eventually, bigger benefits are expected: technology to open elevators at the next floor, sparing occupants from being trapped, and warnings that could halt the flow of natural gas through major pipelines, preventing catastrophic fires.

The proposed budget also affects other agencies monitoring natural disasters. The U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, faces eliminating funding — $12 million — that pays for a critical network of buoys in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. The network can sense an incoming tsunami, enabling officials to send watches and warnings for the United States.

This is known as the Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis, or DART. A budget document said that the termination of the program “is anticipated to have a 20 percent or greater impact on the accuracy, certainty, and timeliness of NOAA’s tsunami watches and warnings.”

The DART buoys are essential for telling local authorities whether the public needs to be evacuated from the coast, Vidale said. “Those DART buoys are our eyes out in the sea for incoming tsunamis from distant earthquakes.”

“The zeroing out of the DART buoys is just startling,” said University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass.

The agency is also facing a proposed reduction of funding for a network of automated weather stations that can indicate rapidly deteriorating weather conditions, called Mesonet. That means NOAA won’t be able to monitor these conditions in all 50 states, but will have to “prioritize states most susceptible to tornadoes and severe weather.”

The budget also proposes reducing funding for an array of sensors in the ocean designed to detect El Nino, which officials said may delay the recognition of the onset of phenomenon, and hamper the ability to deal with its effects, such as heavy rain or drought.

The budget proposal also would slow down the development of the National Weather Service’s next-generation weather forecasting system. Scientists and officials have been pushing for a major upgrade to the weather service’s forecasting system, which is well behind European modeling systems, Mass said. That flaw was seen in Hurricane Sandy as it struck New York, in which U.S. forecasting was far inferior to European forecast models, he said.

“What they’re proposing to do is cutting a large amount of money out, which would delay it at best and kill it at worst,” Mass said. “If you look at the statistics for virtually any place in the country, you’ll see the American model is well behind.”