Experts pitch early earthquake detection systems for Utah

Oct 17, 2023, 1:00 PM

a man points at a seismometer which is used to measure earthquake like the one in magna...

Dr. Keith Koper, director of University of Utah Seismograph Stations, shows an earthquake pattern from a seismometer in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (Mengshin Lin/Deseret News)

(Mengshin Lin/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY— Members of the Utah Geological Survey and other organizations want to bring an earthquake detection system to the Beehive State.

UGS Director Bill Keach presented the idea to the Utah Legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee last Wednesday.

The earthquake detection system would catch different waves emitted by an earthquake. Then, it could send out a warning to people and infrastructure usually a few seconds before it happens.

Many Utahns remember the 5.7 magnitude earthquake in Magna in 2020. An earthquake detection system could have warned residents seconds before the shaking began. 

For example, if the Magna quake happened with this system operational, Utahns on Salt Lake City’s East Bench would’ve gotten a two-second warning, Ogden would’ve gotten seven seconds and Provo would have gotten 17, Keach said.

If an earthquake hit Brigham City, Ogden would maybe get a second, Salt Lake City would get 16 seconds and Provo would get 33 seconds to brace for impact.

“It’s feasible to do this,” Keach said.

During that limited time to prepare for an incoming quake Keach said the system could, for example:

  • Send an alert to phones, TVs, electronic signs in buildings, and drivers on the roads.
  • Alert fire stations.
  • Help keep people’s garage doors open.
  • Stop the Frontrunner before it could potentially derail.
  • Shut down a gas line before it catches fire.

This type of system is already operational in places like the West Coast. Keech said it would cost around $5 million to bring the system to Utah, as opposed to the around $200 million the West Coast had to invest into it.

Keech also said Utah has a, “better than 1 in 2 chance” of seeing an earthquake larger than the one that hit Magna. If Utah got a 7.0 for example, it would be 89 times stronger and 20 times bigger than the Magna quake, and would cost much more than the roughly $70 to 150 million that quake did.

Keech said an up-front investment in an earthquake detection system could save lives and a lot of money.

“If we can do this sort of thing…we can really mitigate those impacts,” Keach said.

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Experts pitch early earthquake detection systems for Utah