Californians could have critical seconds to seek safety or shut down important systems before the onset of damaging shaking under legislation introduced Monday to build an $80 million earthquake early warning system.
The bill, outlined by state Sen. Alex Padilla in a press conference at the California Institute of Technology’s seismology laboratory, would make the project a state priority. It seeks to identify potential sources of state and federal funding, which Padilla said could be accomplished by August.
The U.S. has been testing warning systems for years but lags behind countries such as Japan and Mexico in implementing the technology to actually warn the public.
Padilla, D-Los Angeles, cited research showing very high probabilities for California to have a large earthquake in the next 30 years.
“We’ll have an earthquake warning system, but will it be before or after the next Big One,” Padilla said. “I argue that it ought to be before.”
Obtaining funding in Sacramento and Washington will be “a challenge,” he acknowledged, but asserted that $80 million is a value when put side by side with the billions of dollars in damage caused by major earthquakes.
Seismic early warning systems are designed to detect the first pulses of energy from a big earthquake, estimate its magnitude and send alerts before a different type of waves – slower but damaging – spread widely.
Depending on distance from the epicenter, effective warning times could range from a few seconds to upwards of a minute – enough time for school children to scramble under their desks, a surgeon to pull a knife out of a patient, and for trains, elevators, manufacturing operations, amusement park rides to automatically shut down.
“Caltech firmly believes that earthquake early warning could save lives,” said Michael Gurnis, the seismology lab’s director.
The system envisioned by the legislation would be based on the California Integrated Seismic Network operated by Caltech, the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of California, Berkeley. The network now feeds an early warning system that is in beta testing, providing warnings to researchers.
A prototype user display demonstrated by seismologists recreated a destructive 1933 temblor near the Southern California coast. An alarm squawked and speakers barked “Earthquake! Earthquake! Earthquake” as a circle depicting the speedy but harmless initial wave expanded well ahead of a second wave bringing the damaging ground shaking. Such a display could be transmitted to cellphones and computers, for example.
“Unfortunately the effort to grow beyond the demonstration project has been stunted by nothing other than a lack of funding,” Padilla said.
After full funding, it would take one to two years to make the system reliable enough for warnings to be issued to the public.
Lucy Jones, USGS science adviser for risk reduction, said the seismic network currently has nearly 1,000 stations but many are older technology and can’t be used for the proposed warning system. About 400 stations would need to be upgraded and about 200 new stations would need to be added.
Nevertheless, Jones said, building a warning system from scratch would be significantly more expensive. Japan spent $600 million building its system, she said.
Seismologists stressed that early warning systems do not predict earthquakes.
“We are recognizing that an earthquake is under way and sharing that information before the shaking gets to you,” Jones said. “We are taking advantage of the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound.”
Thomas Heaton, a Caltech professor of engineering seismology, said the first early warning system in California was set up temporarily due to the destructive 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but communications technology of the time was a problem.
He suggested that now, with technology such as cellphones, the reason why California doesn’t have a warning system has to do with a lull in significant seismic activity since the destructive 1994 Northridge earthquake.
“Once we get another large earthquake I’m certain everyone would say, ‘We should have had it,”‘ Heaton said.
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