The Daily Californian Online

Seismologists push for West Coast earthquake warning system

By Claire Perlman
Daily Cal Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Category: News > University > Research and Ideas

At a two-day summit at UC Berkeley that ended Tuesday, leading seismologists discussed the status of an earthquake early warning system for the West Coast that has been in the works since 2006.

The system is modeled after a similar system in Japan - which successfully warned people in Tokyo and in the Sendai region, where the most damage occurred in the March 11 earthquake - that warns people with a cell phone notification or a pop-up window on their computer screens showing a countdown until the shaking begins.

On Monday, seismologists from UC Berkeley, the University of Washington, the California Institute of Technology and the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed the effectiveness of the system during the Japan earthquake.

"Of course, the system was not perfect, and there are lessons to be learned about how the system performed," said Richard Allen, associate director of the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and associate professor of earth and planetary sciences, at a press conference Tuesday. "Testing for a warning system has been under way in the U.S. for a number of years, and what we think is very clear is that now is the time for broader engagement of the potential user community."

However, in this economic climate, funding is a major hurdle in undertaking the project on the scale of making it available to everyone, the researchers acknowledged at the conference. Allen said the earthquake early warning project in California is currently threatened by the federal budget and will come to a complete standstill at the end of July.

"Unfortunately, progress is limited by the amount of funding that is available," said Doug Given, an earthquake early warning coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey, at the conference. "We would really like to move forward more rapidly than we have been able to so far."

According to estimates from the National Research Council, an early warning system would cost $20 million a year. If funding were readily available, the project could be ready in five years with an up-front cost of $80 million for California and $65 million for Washington and Oregon, the researchers said.

Depending on the distance from the epicenter, somebody using an early warning system could receive anywhere between five seconds and a minute of warning. In San Francisco, the warning time would likely be around 20 seconds.

"You can turn that valve off on the hazardous materials you've got flowing, especially if you're in the process of filling up a gas tank," said John McPartland, vice president of the board of directors for BART, at the press conference. "You can get your car stopped if you're on the freeway, and probably most importantly, if I'm on a table and a surgeon is getting ready to cut a knife into me, I'd appreciate it if he'd stop."

The magnitude-9.0 earthquake in Japan stands as a reminder that the Bay Area is due for a large earthquake in the next 30 years - but unlike other earthquake-ridden countries, the United States has no [early warning system that could withstand the stress of a high-magnitude earthquake or that would work effectively to warn the public on a large scale.

"The countries that have early warning systems today largely build them after killer earthquakes," Given said. "It's our hope that it won't take a killer earthquake in the U.S."

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