Technology Works To Provide Early Quake Warning

Scientists can't predict exactly when an earthquake will hit, but they are developing ways to give people up to a minute of warning before the shaking starts. New equipment can send out seismic information 5 seconds faster.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Robert Siegel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And Im Madeleine Brand.

And Im in denial. We all are here in California. We know a big earthquake is coming sometime. But we pretend otherwise, even with Haiti in the news every day. Recently, though, I was confronted with reality when I visited seismological lab at Caltech and looked over Anthony Guarinos shoulder. He was staring at a computer screen that monitors earthquakes in Southern California.

Mr. ANTHONY GUARINO (Seismic Analyst, Caltech Seismological Laboratory): For the week, weve had 777. Generally, we have about 30 a day, but today weve had a lot more. And this week has been a lot more active.

BRAND: Thirty a day, thats, what, about one an hour? Fortunately, most were too small to even be felt, but they're a sobering reminder that the earth beneath us is very active. The notorious San Andreas Fault is not that active, but it is the biggest and most dangerous in the United States. It runs the length of the state.

Across the street from Caltech, in a yellow clapboard house, is the regional office of the U.S. Geological Survey. It's where I meet geophysicist Doug Given, who's not exactly reassuring about the big one.

Mr. DOUG GIVEN (Project Chief, Southern California Earthquake Monitoring, U.S. Geological Survey): We know that a big earthquake on the San Andreas is inevitable. We know that it has produced many, many large earthquakes. We dont know when that next earthquake is going to happen, but we do know that it is going to happen.

BRAND: And when it does happen, Given says, there will be two to three minutes of violent shaking. It would be nice to know exactly when the big one is going to hit, but Doug Given says earthquake forecasting is not possible now and it may never be.

So he's working on developing an early warning system, which could potentially save lives. If scientists are able to detect that an earthquake has started far from a city, they'd have time to send out a warning.

Mr. GIVEN: Earthquake waves move pretty fast. And the most destructive waves move at about two miles per second. Sounds really fast, but we can transmit information at the speed of light, which is essentially instantaneous.

BRAND: Think of it like the delay between seeing lightening and then hearing the thunder. There are 300 seismic sensors located throughout Southern California that measure ground motion. They're in cities, forests and out in the desert. And now about half of the sensors are being upgraded with Federal stimulus dollars. The new equipment can send out seismic information five seconds faster. Thats a lot of time for Doug Given.

Mr. GIVEN: So, if you can detect that an earthquake has began very rapidly at the place where it begins, the epicenter, then its possible to send warning out ahead of the waves. The farther away you are, the more warning you get.

BRAND: He imagines a scenario in which the San Andreas Fault begins to rupture at its southern most end, south of Palm Springs, and violent seismic waves head toward Los Angeles.

Mr. GIVEN: We can detect that an earthquake is very large within about 10 seconds of the beginning of the earthquake, possibly less. Given the distance of my hypothetical earthquake to Los Angeles, that would allow well over a minute of warning to the downtown L.A. area.

BRAND: A minute? But thats a long time.

Mr. GIVEN: It is.

BRAND: But what to do in that minute? Thats the other piece of the early-warning puzzle. Doug Given sees two groups that could use this information. The first would include gas companies, electric utilities, airports.

Mr. GIVEN: We're talking to railroad companies as an example. The type of response that they would adopt would be to slow down or stop trains. In Northern California, BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, is already on board and interested in early warning.

BRAND: And the other group is us: The public. But informing the public could lead to problems.

Mr. GIVEN: This is a very infrequent type of event. Lets imagine that we're talking about public warning such that there would be, say, a light or an alarm in an office building, say, if the people arent educated, and they dont know what it means and they dont know what to do about it, then the early warning is wasted.

BRAND: You spend your precious few seconds wondering: What is that alarm? So is there a better way? Doug Given imagines one day maybe cell phone companies could text message everyone in a threatened area all at once. So they have the science, and they're working on the notification tools for an early warning system, so, whats the holdup?

Mr. GIVEN: Mostly funding.

BRAND: How much would it cost?

Mr. GIVEN: We're thinking somewhere between $50 to $100 million for a construction of a system and probably something on the order of $5 million a year to operate it.

BRAND: And thats just for the West Coast. Thats part of the problem. Doug Gives says many in Washington see earthquakes as a regional threat and therefore something the states should fund. California with its budget woes is in no position to start spending on earthquake early warning systems.

(Soundbite of office)

BRAND: So, how realistic is this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: And how likely will it be that we'll see an early warning system anytime soon?

Mr. GIVEN: It depends on pretty much the willingness of probably the federal government to fund it. Most of the early warning systems that are currently operational were built as a result of some devastating earthquake that created a national will.

BRAND: The Kobe earthquake in Japan, the Mexico City earthquake.

Mr. GIVEN: And we havent had an earthquake like that in the United States. You know, if we have a big earthquake that kills a thousand people in California, you can bet they'll be right there with the money right afterwards. It sure would be nice if they were there with the money before.

BRAND: In the meantime, Doug Given says, we should all have preparedness kits in our homes and cars: food, water, cash and sneakers. As his colleague told me, youre not going to want to drive after the big one hits. I think I'll return to my state of denial now.

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