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Sounding the Alarm

An early warning system would save thousands of lives when the next major earthquake hits. But will California find the money to implement it?


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Tohoku proved that it was. Culling data from more than 1,000 seismometers perched along the volatile Pacific Ring of Fire, the Japanese Meteorological Agency sent out TV and radio warnings, pop-ups on home computers, and texts to cellphones, giving people 15 to 65 seconds to take cover. Loudspeaker systems set up on building rooftops, in schools, on streets, and on public transit vehicles blared alarms. The system is so ubiquitous now that all new iPhones in Japan come with early-warning capabilities pre-installed; homes contain special earthquake receivers displaying the JMA's official earthquake warning logo, a yellow catfish, which in ancient Japanese lore was thought to predict earthquakes before they struck. In terms of infrastructure, not only did bullet trains and elevators stop, but heavy machinery in factories came to rest on the ground, and utilities at risk of having unpredictable and far-reaching effects powered down — including the Fukushima nuclear power plant, whose end was met at the hands not of the quake itself, but of the resulting tsunami waves that eventually engulfed it.

Today, Japan is the most earthquake-prepared country in the world. But Kanamori stresses that it really had no choice. "Seismic hazard is far more serious in Japan than in the US, and they feel strong shaking frequently," Kanamori wrote in an email. "So, obviously they would be more attracted to earthquake early warning in Japan than in the US. It would be difficult to promote this concept in the place where you do not feel earthquakes very often."

In other words, California, perched on the other side of the Pacific Ring of Fire — a volcanic, horseshoe-shaped area that includes both sides of the Pacific Ocean and is home to about 90 percent of the world's earthquakes — may have less impetus to install an early warning system purely because disaster prevention doesn't evoke the same emotions as disaster response. Though Allen, along with groups at Caltech and USGS in Southern California, has been working on a cohesive system since 2006, those developments have barely begun to make it out of the lab.

"Do you want to know why we don't have earthquake early warning yet in California?" asked Given. "The reason is simple: We just haven't had a big killer earthquake in the United States in recent memory. But I've been making the case that we shouldn't wait until after the earthquake — we should do it before."

The odds that the next big killer quake in the United States will take place right here in the Bay Area are high. From the massive San Andreas Fault that runs through the Peninsula, San Francisco, and Marin County to the smaller but perilous Hayward Fault in the East Bay, there is a spidery network of roughly eight fault zones in the region. "The Bay Area has the highest density of active faults per square mile of any urban area in the US," said David Schwartz, an earthquake geologist at USGS's Earthquake Science Center in Menlo Park. "So our hazard — that roughly 63 percent probability of a big quake happening in the next thirty years you hear about all the time — that's up there at the very top."

The Hayward Fault alone "crosses nearly every east-west connection that the Bay Area depends on for water, electric, gas, and transportation," noted a 2010 report commemorating the 140th anniversary of the last Hayward disaster. Though the 1989 Loma Prieta quake served as a wake-up call, leading to massive retrofitting projects by East Bay MUD, school districts, and hospitals across the East Bay in the last decade, many of these same entities would benefit from having the time to get ready for violent shaking when the next big quake strikes.

In the case of a repeat of Loma Prieta, said Allen, the Bay Area would receive a 24-second alert before the shaking starts — if California has a fully operational earthquake early warning system. That would be 24 seconds for teachers, hearing the blaring earthquake alarm, to make sure all students are safely under desks with their heads covered; 24 seconds for surgeons at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center or any of the roughly 46 other hospitals in the area to remove their scalpels from patients in the operating room; 24 seconds to turn planes around at Oakland and San Francisco international airports, both of which are on land that's at high risk for liquefaction; 24 seconds for Chevron or any of the other refineries scattered across the Bay Area to power down their operations, reducing the chance of the raging fires that almost always accompany catastrophic shaking; 24 seconds for millions of individuals receiving a notification on their smartphones, TV sets, radios, or specialized earthquake warning receivers, to get to safety.

But first, the system needs to be built. As it stands now, Berkeley, Caltech, and USGS combined operate roughly 400 seismometers equipped to supply data for earthquake early warning. Allen estimates that we'll need roughly 1,100 instruments lining the faults that spread like spilled milk across the state in order to have a dense-enough network to deliver reliable warnings everywhere. It's expected to cost $80 million to develop and run the system for five years.

Data from the seismometers would be fed to radio and TV stations and to factories and transit lines. But it wouldn't be a fully functioning system. That's because California's plan relies on telecommunications companies developing the products needed to get the early warning data to millions of people. "We're seismologists, not cellphone engineers," said Strauss. "And so it's all well and good if I send you a text message to tell you an earthquake is coming. But if we do a point-to-point text message to everybody who signs up, it could take hours for you to actually receive the message, because that's how texting works. And that does you no good."