Over the summer, San Francisco was hit by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake, leveling buildings and injuring 172 Bay Area residents. However, much of the Bay Area breathed a sigh of relief: They had been spared the big one, once again.
Unbeknownst to many Bay Area residents, however, researchers at places like the University of California, Berkeley are experimenting with technology that would provide an early warning system for the next major earthquake. In this case, the technology worked, sounding an alarm just seconds before the North Bay quake.
ShakeAlert, as it’s called, is a partnership between Cal, the University of Washington, CalTech, the Southern California Earthquake Center, and the United States Geological Survey. And it is fascinating how it works:
The objective of warning of an early earthquake is to rapidly detect the initiation of an earthquake, estimate the level of ground shaking to be expected, and issue a warning before significant ground shaking starts. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave, which brings the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage, arrives.
Similar systems are already in use in Mexico and Japan, where they’ve provided early warning for quakes. Yet, it’s facing an $80 million funding shortfall — despite a state mandate to create an early-warning system and private funding supporting the research.
Currently, only private firms offer early warning systems, and these are primarily geared towards industry, not public works and individual consumers. If you want an early warning system to turn off valves in an oil refinery, for example, you can find the equipment to do it — if you can afford the materials, installation costs, and ongoing maintenance.
Testing of such systems uses real-time tracking of seismic events, paired with predictions, to determine accuracy, increase lead time on warnings, and estimate error rates. But experimental data still aren’t made public, even if such information could provide a public safety benefit.
Will California, or another U.S. state, have to wait for a major quake before the necessary funding is pushed through? This may be exactly what happens, as California is struggling to fund ShakeAlert and the necessary equipment, seismic observation stations, and personnel to make the system work with a high degree of accuracy.
Proponents of the ShakeAlert could release the rudimentary system, stressing that it is incomplete, not quite ready for launch, and potentially unreliable, but it is better than nothing. The launch would have to be accompanied with warnings that citizens shouldn’t get too complacent, because the advance notice provided likely wouldn’t be very extensive, and false alarms could occur. Citizens would need to back up ShakeAlert or a similar system with earthquakepreparations as already recommended by the state and other agencies.
Or, they could keep the technology under wraps as it remains under development, focusing on making it as good as possible before it’s released. In the meantime, earthquakes could cause millions or billions worth of damage accompanied by severe injuries and loss of life that could have been prevented had such a system been implemented, leaving officials in an unenviable position.
The images that have circulated the internet following the earthquake of broken wine stocks and bottles in Napa Valley and minor damage in other areas are just a tiny sliver of California’s possible future, the consequence of living on fractured and restless ground. In the face of that knowledge, how can the state defend a refusal to fund life-saving technology?