Top Story: April 23, 2014

Earthquake Early Warning

earthquakes, warning, system, mexico, california, japan

By Jami Smith

Mexico’s 7.2-magnitude earthquake last week scared locals, but it caused no major damage. No large buildings fell and no deaths were reported. One thing that may have helped: Mexico’s early warning system for earthquakes. The announcement that a quake was coming appears to have given Mexico City residents more than a minute’s notice, according to the Los Angeles Times. That’s an important minute: trains can slow down or stop, individuals can get to safer spots or exit elevators, emergency responders can prepare, police can clear bridge traffic. In a big quake, these small moments can save innumerable lives. You can see a video of a TV newscaster announcing the Mexico quake, and riding it out on-air, here.

Mexico, which implemented its early warning for earthquakes in 1991, is not the only country with this life-saving system. Japan has had an earthquake warning system available to the public since 2007, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Japan established its system partially in response to the devastating 1995 Kobe quake, in which more than 6,000 people were killed. Taiwan, Romania, Turkey, Italy, and China have early warning systems, too.

Why don’t we have this in the United States? Certainly parts of the west coast, such as California and Washington, experience earthquakes with sufficient frequency that this technology and information would be extremely valuable. Geologists have been telling Californians for years that the Hayward fault, which runs along the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay, is overdue for a big shake, with damage estimates in the hundreds of billions of dollars if a large earthquake were to hit. The Bay Area houses seven million people who would be grateful for an earthquake heads-up.

The USGS, the University of California Berkeley, and other institutions have been working on an early warning system for California, but lack of funding is slowing the process. In September, a bill was passed in the California legislature requiring that the state Office of Emergency Services develop an earthquake warning system, but funding for the project was not provided. Officials have said initial costs for a statewide system would be approximately $80 million, with about $12 million needed annually to maintain it.

Doug Given, geophysicist and USGS Earthquake Early Warning Coordinator, says they’ve been working on an earthquake warning system and an accompanying notification system. “The ShakeAlert demonstration system has been working in California since January 2012,” he said by email. “It sends live alerts to about two dozen organizations that are evaluating the system. We are now making progress on a ‘production prototype’ that is the next step toward public warnings. The demonstration system has performed well and has detected virtually all significant events since it went online.”

But for the system to work well statewide, it needs more sensors. And the sensors it has need to be maintained.  Given says, “Currently there are not enough sensors in the monitoring network to provide fast and reliable alerts uniformly across the West Coast. The Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas have better sensor coverage than most areas. It is estimated that 400 additional stations are needed to cover all of the earthquake source regions along the West Coast.”

The primary hurdle seems to be lack of money. Officials have been struggling to find federal and state funds for the system. Earlier this month a group of West Coast legislators appealed to the federal government for funding.

“The timeline for public release of the system is dependent on funding,” Given says. He told the San Francisco Chronicle last month that he’s sure the money will come, but no one knows when:

“We know that if a large quake shows up, the money will, too,” he said. “We just hope it gets here before then.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month:

“You only need one really bad earthquake to have the system pay for itself. It’s surprising that we haven’t moved more swiftly. If we wait too long, we’ll certainly be kicking ourselves that we didn’t.”

For more on earthquake science and preparedness, come visit the Academy’s Earthquake exhibit, or check out our iTunes U course on Earthquakes! And start to think about how you would use an extra minute’s warning before a major quake…

Image: USGS


  • MedfordMan

    This article is frankly deceptive. That’s not the author’s fault. It’s just that no one has really examined the USGS proposal with a skeptical eye.

    This article assumes that the same situation applies in California as in Mexico City. Nothing could be further from the truth! Mexico City is built on a swamp and oscillates like a jelly bowl. The faults which pose the greatest threat are more than 200 miles away. Last week’s Guerrero quake was 178 miles away. Often, the worst quakes threatening Mexico City are offshore––even though it is located in the middle of the country! That gives plenty of time for the alert to be flashed ahead electronically, beating the quake to the nation’s capital

    The system that the USGS is touting would likewise rely on the lag time between the arrival of P-waves (back-and-forth shaking) and the far more damaging S-waves (up-and-down shaking). The farther the quake, the greater the lag time, the better chance for a usable alarm. In California, cities are most threatened by quakes that occur at close proximity, say along the Hayward or San Andreas faults, with most of the damage occurring close to the epicenter and diminishing sharply with distance.

    No one has pressed the USGS to specify the warning time that Californians might expect from this system: maybe one or two seconds.

    No one has pressed the USGS to disclose the “blind zone” that wouldn’t receive any warning at all: 20 miles to either side of the fault.

    Needless to say, 20 miles to either side of the Hayward Fault would cover ALL of San Francisco and Berkeley and much else besides. To reduce this blind zone appreciably would require a vastly expanded network beyond the one budgeted.

    And lastly, why is the USGS pressing so hard just now for this dubious “early warning” system? It could be because a working quake prediction system that allows up to two weeks’ warning, developed by a Silicon Valley firm, has already proved its mettle in Peru. Three times in 2013, this system anticipated strong to medium quakes well off the Peruvian coastline. And in addition to the two week’s warning, this system also provided precise triangulation of the prospective epicenter! This same corporation ALREADY has an electromagnetic detection network spanning the full length of California.

    This is not a myth or a fairy tale. This data has not been trumpeted to the public during the beta phase, but was reported in advance to officials of the Peruvian government and of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica for independent verification. In December, data on all three of the successful quake forecasts was openly presented at the American Geophysical Union’s December meeting in San Francisco.

    Over the past 30 years, the USGS has failed either to lead or to follow in the quest for reliable quake forecasting. Knowing that this could not be done by seismology alone, it refused to fund serious independent research into electromagnetic alternatives. It was their way––or the highway. Now, all that is left for the USGS to contribute to this effort is to get out of the way of those who not only CAN DO, but who have done so without a penny of taxpayer funding.

    Rep. Schiff would do well to better guard the public’s purse. Someone is always determined to pick it.

  • faithsound

    The scientist or geologist warned Oso WA about their oncoming disaster… But some people just don’t like to be warned. I feel this article is a real help. I was glad to see that the President visited these folks yesterday. And kept out the press… We need to be forewarned.

  • James Velasquez

    Have States considered letting businesses fund earthquake alerts through their property or business insurance policies. Having a few seconds can potentially save lives or give time to take cover under a desk. Without warnings, serious injury or death is possible. Businesses already have policies to cover someone if they get injured in their offices or buildings. It would benefit insurance greatly limiting their liability pool if businesses would enroll all their own employees into their insurer’s SMS database. When the Earthquake Alert gets issued to their insurer’s SMS database it goes direct to all business employees cell phones. Business and Insurer’s are how alert coverage gets paid for. The same alert coverage can be applied with homeowner’s through their Insurance provider and auto insurance providers.

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