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ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system goes live in Washington state — here’s how it works

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A team from the UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network installs a new solar panel array at a seismic monitoring site in Enumclaw, Wash., in April. The seismometer, one of hundreds that provide data for ShakeAlert, is in the hole in the foreground. A trench brings cables to the newly installed solar panels, on the right, that power the system, and an aluminum box containing electronics that digitize and transmit the seismic data. (University of Washington Photo)

The news: ShakeAlert, an automated system designed to warn people that an earthquake has occurred and shaking is imminent, is being activated in Washington state today to complete a West Coast rollout of the technology.

A ShakeAlert warning on a smartphone.

How it works: The alert system, operated by the U.S Geological Survey in cooperation with the University of Washington-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, does not predict earthquakes before they happen, but is designed to rapidly detect ones that have already begun. Ground motion sensors near the earthquake feel the ground shaking and relay that information to a data processing center. The precise location of the quake is determined and ShakeAlert algorithms quickly estimate the strength and areas that will likely feel shaking.

What you’ll see: People connected to the Wireless Emergency Alert system (the same system that produces AMBER alerts), will now get earthquake alerts for events of magnitude 5 or greater, using a similar interface, the UW reported. The smartphone alert will advise people to drop, cover and hold. Warning times range from a few seconds to tens of seconds depending on your distance to the epicenter.

Android phone users will get an alert built into the phone’s operating system. There is no downloadable app, but you can learn more about how to get alerts here.

They said it: Project leaders and representatives held a virtual news conference on Tuesday to discuss the system and its benefits. Among those involved:

  • Harold Tobin, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and professor of Earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, said the system is not earthquake prediction, but rather a chance to receive a small amount of warning. “It can allow you enough time to gather your thoughts,” Tobin said. “People who feel the shaking tend to freeze up. Knowing it’s coming could change that.”
  • Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, called ShakeAlert “an example of smart community technology” and said she has been pushing for $28.6 million in additional funding from Congress for fiscal year 2022.
  • Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Port Angeles, was raised in and represents the northwestern most region of the state. “The threat of an earthquake and the potential of a tsunami that comes with it looms large in our lives,” Kilmer said. “Even a handful of seconds of warning could be the difference between life and death. This matters.”

Where else is it used?: ShakeAlert, which is similar to existing early warning systems in Mexico and Japan, began sending alerts in California in 2019 and in Oregon in March 2021.

(Click to enlarge)

Big threat: Washington state has the second largest earthquake risk, behind California, of all 50 states. With Washington now online, the system will issue warnings to millions more people at risk from the largest possible earthquake in the lower 48 states — a rupture of the offshore Cascadia Subduction Zone. The 700-mile fault runs from California’s Cape Mendocino to the tip of Canada’s Vancouver Island.

Other uses for system: The USGS partners with agencies to turn the information into public alerts, such as through notifications in smartphone apps and announcements on PA systems. Other technical partners can use the ShakeAlert data to take automated action such as:

  • Slowing trains to prevent derailment.
  • Stopping elevators at the nearest floor and opening their doors.
  • Opening firehouse doors so they are not stuck shut.
  • Throttling water utility valves to prevent emptying of reservoirs.
  • Activating backup generators at hospitals to ensure continued service.

More work to do: The sensor network is only about 65% complete for Washington state, with about 230 seismic stations and around 100 more to add. Oregon has some 155 stations providing data. The USGS and state and university partners will be adding more seismometers to the network through late 2025 to further enhance the system’s capability. The UW’s Tobin also said that they will continue to improve the algorithm for better assurance that ShakeAlert will be accurate and fast.


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String of satellites baffles residents, bugs astronomers

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A string of lights that lobbed across the night sky in parts of the United States over three nights earlier this week had callers frantically calling TV stations from Texas to Wisconsin and speculating that a fleet of UFOs was coming

PHILADELPHIA — A string of lights that lobbed across the night sky in parts of the U.S. on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday had some people wondering if a fleet of UFOs was coming, but it had others— mostly amateur stargazers and professional astronomers— lamenting the industrialization of space.

The train of lights was actually a series of relatively low-flying satellites launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX as part of its Starlink internet service earlier this week. Callers swamped TV stations from Texas to Wisconsin reporting the lights and musing about UFOs.

An email to a spokesman for SpaceX was not returned Saturday, but astronomy experts said the number of lights in quick succession and their distance from Earth made them easily identifiable as Starlink satellites for those who are used to seeing them.

“The way you can tell they are Starlink satellites is they are like a string of pearls, these lights travelling in the same basic orbit, one right after the other,” said Dr. Richard Fienberg, press officer for the American Astronomical Society.

Fienberg said the satellites that are being launched in large groups called constellations string together when they orbit, especially right after launching. The strings get smaller as time goes on.

This month, SpaceX has already launched dozens of satellites. It is all part of a plan to bridge the digital divide and bring internet access to underserved areas of the world, with SpaceX tentatively scheduled to launch another 120 satellites later in the month. Overall, the company has sent about 1,500 satellites into orbit and has asked for permission to launch thousands more.

But prior to recent years, there were maybe a few hundred satellites total orbiting Earth, mostly visible as individual lights moving across the sky, Fienberg said. The other handful of companies that are planning to or have launched the satellite constellations have not launched recently and largely pushed them into orbit at a farther distance from Earth, he said.

Fienberg’s group as well as others that represent both professional and amateur stargazers don’t love the proliferation of satellites that can obscure scientific data and ruin a clear night of watching the universe. The International Astronomical Union issued a statement in July 2019 noting concern about the multiple satellite launches.

“The organisation, in general, embraces the principle of a dark and radio-quiet sky as not only essential to advancing our understanding of the Universe of which we are a part, but also as a resource for all humanity and for the protection of nocturnal wildlife,” the union’s representatives wrote. They noted that light reflection can interfere with astronomical research, but the radio-waves can also cause problems for specialized research equipment such as those that captured the first images of a black hole.

Fienberg said there is no real regulation of light pollution from satellites, but SpaceX has voluntarily worked to mitigate that by creating visors that dampen the satellites’ reflection of sunlight. They’ve made significant progress in just two years, he said, but many hope that the satellites will some day be at such a low magnitude that they will not be visible to the naked eye even at dusk or dawn.

Fienberg noted a massive telescope being built in Chile, costing millions of dollars and a decade of planning. The telescope will capture a huge swath of the sky in the Southern hemisphere and take continual pictures to record a sort of movie that will show the universe changing. Because of its size, nearly eight meters across, the massive telescope could also lead to the discovery of dimmer objects in the night sky, he said.

The plan is for the telescope to start recording in 2023. And with plans for thousands of satellites, Fienberg said it’s hard to imagine that they won’t cause issues with the data since there’s no way to correct for their lights and know what amount of light should be emitted from any dimmer objects behind the path of the satellites, which could also create ghost images in the data.

“We’re talking with companies now and hoping to continue to make progress, and potentially by the time it goes into operation, have tools and techniques to correct for the lights and perhaps fainter satellites,” Fienberg said. “We can’t say this is wrong and you have to stop because the point is to provide internet access to the whole globe. It’s an admirable goal, that we would support, if it didn’t mean giving up something else… the night sky.”

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Tesla Cybertruck hits New York ahead of Elon Musk’s SNL hosting appearance

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Tesla

Tesla, SpaceX and Boring Company honcho Elon Musk isn’t the only tech-world curiosity stirring up New York this weekend. It seems the soon-to-be SNL host has been joined by the Tesla Cybertruck (or at least a prototype of it).

The notorious Armageddon-ready e-pickup, which starred in a viral demo-gone-wrong in 2019, appears in a video tweeted out Saturday by Tesla. The brief clip shows the vehicle rolling past the Radio City Music Hall (doesn’t look like any Rockettes were injured during the stunt — or any rockets either, for that matter).

Twitter user Eric Rihlman also tweeted out footage of the Cybertruck, and he posted a still shot of the pickup making its way through Times Square on Friday night, along with a comment about the “Blade Runner vibes” he felt on witnessing the spectacle.

That tweet got a rise out of Musk himself, who replied, “Great pic.” (On Friday, Musk had tweeted that the prototype would be visiting New York.)

Musk of course is scheduled to host Saturday Night Live tonight, where, he’s said, there’s “no telling” what he’ll do. Here’s how to watch, as well as what to know about the comments that Musk, his fans, and SNL cast members have made about his role as host.

As for the Tesla Cybertruck, it’s supposed to launch sometime this year. But in April, Musk made it sound like that may not be happening.


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How to watch Technoking Elon Musk on SNL

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Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is hosting Saturday Night Live this week. He’s coming in fresh from Wednesday’s successful Starship prototype landing but also on the heels of recent customer complaints about Tesla’s Solar Roof costs and last month’s deadly Tesla crash. If you have the desire to spend part of your Saturday finding out if the self-proclaimed Technoking makes a good comedy show host, here are the details.

Update: NBC announced Saturday afternoon that the show would be live-streamed internationally for the first time. The link for people to watch outside of the US is here.

How do I watch?

SNL airs on NBC, and it’s available to watch on the NBC website if you have a cable login. It will also be available on other live TV streaming services like Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, and Fubo TV.

If you don’t catch it live, SNL episodes are available on Hulu and Peacock the next day.

When does it start?

It starts at 11:30PM ET on May 8th, which is — you guessed it — Saturday night.

What will happen?

Miley Cyrus will be performing. Beyond that, who knows! Perhaps Musk will make a bunch of references to Dogecoin, do a skit where he re-creates the faces he pulled while smoking weed, or joke about rockets catching fire. Maybe his Twitter charisma won’t quite carry over, or maybe he’ll shock us with a surprisingly good delivery of a witty monologue. It remains to be seen, but either way, I’m sure we’ll hear all about it on Twitter.

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