Earthshaking Support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

Remember how California was going to break off in an earthquake and sink into the Pacific Ocean? Those of us who live along the San Andreas fault in California continue to have our share of earthquakes, and some, like the 1994 Northridge Quake, are pretty shaky, but it looks like we're going to remain attached to the rest of the country. Washington State, on the other hand, could be in real trouble, along with Oregon and part of Northern California. Those states sits alongside a major undersea fault called the Cascadia subduction zone, which seismologists say has the potential to wreak immense destruction, including triggering a tsunami.

If you live pretty much anywhere on the West Coast, earthquakes and associated tsunamis are a very real threat. But usually, the first inkling that one is occuring comes when the floor starts shaking, which provides pretty much zero time to take safety measures. More time would be better.

Maybe that warning period will increase. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has kicked in another multimillion-dollar grant to three West Coast universities to continue developing a new earthquake warning system called ShakeAlert.

The new $3.6 million grant will fund the same research groups to advance three areas of early earthquake warning:

  • UC Berkeley scientists will pursue a novel method to detect the shaking caused by earthquakes, using the same sensors used in smart phones to count steps;
  • Caltech scientists will develop a humanlike decision-making process to gather information from seismic networks to issue prompt and reliable alerts;  
  • U. of Washington scientists will study implementation of a network of sensors on the ocean floor to provide early warning for quakes emanating from the Cascadia subduction zone.

According to the Moore foundation, the system would provide seconds to minutes of warning before shaking begins. That would help individuals, public services and companies take various safety and life-saving steps, like halting elevators at a floor and opening their doors, and slowing down trains and activating emergency systems, among other response.  

Earthquake warning has been an ongoing interest for the Moore foundation, which has been helping to fund ShakeAlert since 2011. It had already sent $6.5 million to Caltech, UC Berkeley, University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey.

It's a public-private partnership. Federal money paid for some of the system's $38.3 million development cost. Once operational, it'll take $16 million annually to keep the system running.

Moore's interest in a technological solution to a public safety threat is not surprising: Gordon Moore amassed fantastic wealth as a co-founder of Intel Corp., where he was part of the microprocessor technology that pretty much changed everything in the last few decades. The Moore Foundation has given away more than $1 billion so far, and has directed most of it to environmental, health and scientific causesall of which are pretty neatly wrapped up in a system like ShakeAlert.

Earthquakes, of course, are a serious threat to public health, apart from the billions in damage that the larger ones cause. In the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit the San Francisco area in 1989, dozens of people died and thousands were injured.