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Expected warning times from the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system for earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest

March 10, 2021

The ShakeAlert® earthquake early warning system has been live since October 2019 for the testing of public alerting to mobile devices in California and will soon begin testing this modality in Oregon and Washington. The Pacific Northwest presents new challenges and opportunities for ShakeAlert owing to the different types of earthquakes that occur in the Cascadia subduction zone. Many locations in the Pacific Northwest are expected to experience shaking from shallow crustal earthquakes (similar to those in California), earthquakes that occur deep within the subducted slab, and large megathrust earthquakes that occur primarily offshore. The different geometries and maximum magnitudes associated with these types of earthquakes lead to a range of warning times that are possible between when the initial ShakeAlert Message is issued and when a user experiences strong shaking. After an earthquake begins, the strategy of the ShakeAlert system for public alerting is to warn people who are located close enough to the fault that the system estimates they will experience at least weak to moderate shaking. By alerting the public at these low levels of expected shaking, it is possible to provide sufficient warning times for some users to take protective actions before strong shaking begins. In this study, we present an analysis of past ShakeAlert Messages as well as simulations of historical earthquakes and potential future Cascadia earthquakes to quantify the range of warning times that users who experience strong or worse shaking are likely to receive. Additional applications for ShakeAlert involve initiation of automatic protective actions prior to the onset of shaking, such as slowing trains, shutting water supplies, and opening firehouse doors, which are beyond the scope of this paper. Users in the Pacific Northwest should expect that the majority of alerts they receive will be from shallow crustal and intraslab earthquakes. In these cases, users will only have a few seconds of warning before strong shaking begins. This remains true even during infrequent, offshore great (magnitude ≥8) megathrust earthquakes, where warning times will generally range from seconds to tens of seconds, depending on the user’s location and the intensity of predicted shaking that a user chooses to be alerted for, with the longest warning times of 50–80 seconds possible only for users located at considerable distance from the epicenter. ShakeAlert thus requires short, readily understood alerts stating that earthquake shaking is imminent and suggesting protective actions users should take. Extensive education and outreach efforts that emphasize the need to take actions quickly will be required for ShakeAlert to successfully reduce injuries and losses.