California Poised to Implement Earthquake Early-Warning System

October 18, 2009

(ChattahBox)—California’s San Francisco Bay Area experienced a devastating magnitude 7.1 earthquake 20 years ago, killing sixty-three people. Perhaps if an early warning system had been in place, providing a precious few seconds of warning, lives may have been saved. That’s the hope of a seismologist working with the University of California, Berkeley to implement an earthquake early warning system, which would be the first system in the United States.

The warning system will be put through the paces of a final testing phase this fall. The system would receive data from a network of 400 seismic monitoring stations placed throughout the state.

The highly sensitive detection instruments are stored in a concrete vault built 100 feet into a rocky hillside above the UC Berkeley campus. Richard Allen, a seismologist with the university is working hard to ready the warning system to completion.

The instruments detect what’s called P and S waves. The P waves are the first sign of an impending earthquake and the S waves come later and cause the most damage. Despite the sensitivity of the instruments, the system is only capable of providing a warning to residents of a few seconds.

But experts say a few seconds could save lives. David Oppenheimer of the United States Geological Survey said that schools could put a system in place telling children to take cover. “Alarms in schools saying, “Duck and cover” with, you know, a voice telling you what to do,” could make all the difference says Oppenheimer.

In the future, cell phone applications could be programmed to detect P-wave alerts, providing a further layer of safety and warning to residents.

The early warning system is not perfect. It would have a tendency to issue false alarms, but Allen believes the system is worth the investment, if it saves lives in the earthquake prone state.

And with new computers made possible by $5 million in U.S stimulus funds, the quake data can be processed faster, adding a life-saving five additional seconds of warning time.

The earthquake early warning system is scheduled to go into operation in 2013.



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