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January 14, 2021

A lone solar panel in the middle of California’s largest national forest is powering a seismometer able to detect Earth’s vibrations, a piece of the puzzle necessary to help protect life and property by providing critical seconds of warning that an earthquake is occurring and shaking is imminent.  

This seismometer in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California, along with more than 200 seismometers in various stages of implementation across California, Oregon and Washington, is the result of a close partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service to expand seismic monitoring capability in national forests to support earthquake early warning capability.  

These seismometers join a network of more than 1,100 ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning system stations along the West Coast that are already actively collecting real-time information to help develop and deliver alerts to nearby populations. 

The two agencies established an Interagency Agreement in September 2017 that streamlines the process to permit new stations and upgrade existing stations in national forests. The agencies consult with local Tribes and ensure compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and National Historic Preservation Act. 

“This project is a success story of collaboration between two federal agencies to achieve a common goal – enhancing public health and safety,” Jim Reilly, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, said. “We are grateful to the USDA Forest Service for its continued support of the USGS mission and look forward to future successful collaborations.” 

Supporting the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System  

a seismometer and its solar panel at the Shasta-Trinity National Forest
A seismometer and its solar panel sit in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Gumboot Lake in California. 

ShakeAlert collects and shares real-time information about the magnitude, location and expected shaking from earthquakes on the West Coast to distribution partners who then deliver alerts via radio, the internet, television and cell phone. An alert can warn people to take a protective action, such as Drop, Cover, and Hold On, or trigger automated actions, such as slowing a train.  

ShakeAlert relies on sensor data from the USGS Advanced National Seismic System, which includes a robust network of seismometers across the country, to provide situational awareness about earthquake occurrences and effects, and help communities in earthquake-prone areas develop safer building protocols. The USGS, with additional support from the states of California, Oregon and Washington, is expanding and upgrading the system on the West Coast. 

ShakeAlert’s seismic network is 67 percent built; when complete the network will constitute 1,115 stations in California and 560 in Washington and Oregon. Federal land-management agencies control large swaths of land in these states, making the USDA Forest Service a critical partner in a robust earthquake early warning effort.  

“The USDA Forest Service is proud to partner with the USGS on this valuable safety project for residents of California, Oregon and Washington,” said Randy Moore, USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Regional Forester. “The Earthquake Early Warning System is something that can bring additional peace of mind to citizens living in our earthquake-prone areas.” 

Building and Maintaining the Network  

The USGS received the first USDA Forest Service permits to build or upgrade California seismic stations in September 2020, with additional permits arriving in December. Combined, the USGS now has 17 permits for network locations in eight different national forests. Permits for the remaining stations in California are expected to be complete by the end of January 2021. 

The USDA Forest Service issued the first permits for Oregon and Washington in December 2020 and expects to issue the remaining permits by late spring 2021.  

Crews led by USGS partners at the University of California, Berkeley, using funds from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, began installing seismic stations in September 2020. The crews are installing the stations under strict COVID-19 safety protocols. 

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