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December 29, 2009
Why Doesn't California have an 'Earthquake Early Warning' System?
If the technology to detect earthquakes before they happen is being used in other countries, why doesn’t the state of California have an earthquake “early warning” system?
Japan, Taiwan, and Mexico have earthquake “early warning” systems. Japan’s is considered to be the best and has been connected with public warning systems for two years. As described in the public information manuals supplied by the Japanese Meteorological Association (JMA), the warnings of tremors to come go out via television and radio, and may only come a “few seconds,” or as much as “tens of seconds” in advance. The earthquake “warning” allows buses or trains to slow down, elevators to be stopped, and gives the public a little time to take cover. The closer the earthquake is to monitoring devices, according to the JMA, the shorter the advance warning time.
It has been twenty years since the Loma Prieta “big earthquake” in northern California. It was a devastating 6.9 magnitude, 15 second-long shaker that killed 93 people (some immediately and some within a few days,) injured nearly four thousand, and left between 3,000 and 12,000 people homeless. A double-decker freeway “pancaked” in the earthquake, and a piece of the venerable San Francisco Bay Bridge dropped into the ocean.
Southern California’s “North Ridge” quake in 1994 killed 57 people, injured 1,500, approximately 200,000 structures were damaged, and portions of 11 major roads were closed down.
Billions of dollars have been committed since then to “retro-fitting” or “earthquake-proofing” of old and new construction, public and private facilities in California. The San Francisco Bay Bridge, is still not repaired and may eventually cost more $7 billion to be made “safe.”
Geologists now predict a 99 % possibility that there will be a much more destructive earthquake, of 6.7 magnitude or greater, within 30 years in northern California, which could put an estimated 159,000 people out of their homes.
Obviously, the state of California has a huge financial, emotional and economic interest in having an early warning alert system for earthquakes. Even with only ten seconds’ warning, many people could move out of danger into a life-saving position.
So why isn’t the home state of the supposedly technology-innovative Silicon Valley the first place in the world to have the best early earthquake warning system in the world?
In December 2007, just two months after Japan’s public system was already installed and working, U.S. scientists met in San Francisco to report that they had developed an earthquake early warning system in 2005, but were still testing it. Hooking up the system to 650 seismometers statewide would cost $30 million. Testing was to be completed in July, 2009.
Just this month, there was another meeting of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) “talking heads” in San Francisco. Apparently, California is still years away from a system to warn the public to take cover before earthquakes. Yada, yada.
After a three-year earthquake early warning study funded by the U.S. Geological Survey was completed in August 2009, a second USGS-funded project was launched to integrate the previously tested methods into a single prototype warning system. When completed, this pilot system, called the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) ShakeAlert System, will provide warning to a small group of test users, including emergency response groups, utilities, and transportation agencies. While in the testing phase, the system will not provide public alerts.
The USGS news release, dated December 14, 2009 says federal stimulus funds will be used to buy sensors and equipment over the next two years.
The state of California’s $21 billion budget deficit is a well-known fact. However, not spending $30 million to potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives, and protect the substantial public and private investments in new construction seems short-sighted on the part of California’s decision-makers, if not downright negligent.
After all, the $789 billion February 2009 federal stimulus bill contained $30 million to protect the salt marsh harvest mouse in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco bay district.