ShakeAlert early warning system expanding to Lake Tahoe with new federal earthquakes funds

A West Coast-wide earthquake early warning system will expand into Lake Tahoe, eastern California and the Mojave Desert with a boost of federal funds, officials at the University of Nevada, Reno, announced Tuesday.

University of Nevada is getting a portion of the $12.5 million award from the U.S. Geological Survey to seven universities and a non-profit group to widen the ShakeAlert early warning system; replace outdated earthquake sensors and install new seismic stations to ensure temblor warnings are faster and more reliable.

ShakeAlert is the public earthquake warning system now in place in portions of California, Oregon and Washington. The system detects earthquakes, assesses their hazard and notifies people before shaking starts via locations away from the quake’s epicenter.

With the USGS award, the university’s seismic lab will integrate ShakeAlert into its own seismic monitoring system focusing first on California’s Tahoe-Truckee area before expanding eastward into Nevada’s urban centers of Reno, the capital Carson City and south to Las Vegas, university officials said.

Three major fault lines run beneath Lake Tahoe according to the USGS. The largest, the West Tahoe Fault that runs along the lakes west shore passing through Fallen Leaf Lake, is “capable of producing a magnitude-7.3 earthquake and tsunamis up to 30 feet high in the clear blue lake,” the federal agency says.

Seismologists say an earthquake strikes the area once every 3,000 to 4,000 years, with the most recent major event happening about 4,500 years ago – indicating the fault is overdue for another earthquake.

The USGS says the most recent earthquake in Tahoe was about 575 years ago on Incline Fault, “which becomes active about every 10,000 to 15,000 years” and could hold the potential to unleash a magnitude-7 temblor.

The Nevada award going toward Lake Tahoe is for the first year of a two-year pact with ShakeAlert partners including UC Berkeley and California Institute of Technology; along with the universities of Oregon and Washington and Central Washington University.

“We have an unmatched communications system that powers our seismic, fire and extreme-weather network. Integrating the earthquake early warning system into our network makes sense,” said Graham Kent, director of University of Nevada’s Nevada Seismological Laboratory, in a statement Tuesday announcing the award.

Kent says an early warning system could buy Las Vegas residents, for example, as much as a minute of response time in an earthquake centered in Death Valley nearly 150 miles away.

Seconds can save lives in an earthquake. Even 10 to 20 seconds of response time an early warning system could provide is “still valuable time to take protective actions,” Kent said.

ShakeAlert has been in the works since 2006. California joined the effort in 2013 charging the state Office of Emergency Services to work with USGS to develop its own early warning system. California has since dedicated more than $40 million toward earthquake early warning, according to the USGS.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.