Where is America's early earthquake warning system?

Here's a look at earthquake warning systems in the US. Japan got a lot of coverage recently but we forget that it can happen to us.

Japan leads the world in early earthquake warning systems.

The Japan Meteorological Agency uses a regional seismic network of about 1,000 stations distributed across the country to sense earthquakes and warn people that a big one is imminent.

Japan's robust system was put to the test during the massive 'quake in March of this year. Alerts were sent straight to people's cell phones. Seismic detectors relayed information to transportation officials, communication networks and industrial facilities -- giving employees enough time to evacuate, schoolchildren enough time to duck under desks and bullet trains enough time to stop moving and clear out.

In the wake of the earthquake (and subsequent tsunami), Japan received a lot of news coverage for its early earthquake warning system. But we forget that the United States is prone to earthquakes, too.

Unlike Japan, the United States doesn't have a publicly-available earthquake warning system. (There are, however, several private firms that work with federal agencies. But the concept is still in its infancy.) This week's East Coast shake showed us that earthquake's aren't just a West Coast phenomenon.

In general, early earthquake systems can predict shaking intensity before the rumbling can be felt. For instance, if a factory worker has 30 seconds to shut off a key valve, it can spare a much larger accident. If a conductor knows to stop a train before it crosses over an aging bridge, thousands of lives can potentially be saved.

Time magazine's Lucy Birmingham writes about Japan's earthquake warning system:

"Here, let me show you this pamphlet that we use to teach elementary schoolchildren," Satoko Oki of the University of Tokyo's Earthquake Research Institute said. I read wide-eyed as the cartoon characters — a little green P and a big pink S — show me the powerful science behind quakes. P-waves are the first evidence of a quake (P is for primary), and have fast, short wavelengths and do little damage. These are followed usually several seconds later by the destructive S-waves (S is for secondary) with longer wavelengths. These snakelike seismic waves, feared as earth dragons in ancient China and Japan, are the gut-wrenching movements that crush buildings and create landslides. "The good news is that P-waves always come before S-waves so you can prepare yourself," said Oki.

A network of seismometers can determine the earthquake's epicenter and help improve predictions about the earthquake's intensity. The data is sent after the arrival of "P" waves. At first, there's an estimate (to reduce false alarms), but it gets more accurate as the earthquake continues.

With a big quake likely to  shake California in the next 30 years, is the state prepared? California is prone to earthquakes because it rests on the boundary between two of the earth’s major tectonic plates -- the Pacific and American Plates. There is a test going on in California right now under the name of The California Integrated Seismic Network, which has hundreds of high-tech sensors nearly six feet under the ground along California's earthquake fault lines. Algorithms are tested using real-time seismic networks.

“Japan’s earthquake early warning system undoubtedly saved thousands of lives, and will reduce the long-term impact of the earthquake on the economy," said Richard Allen, associate director of the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, in a statement from April of this year.

He added: "A similar system in California could provide as much as a minute warning -- and in Washington, as much as two-to-three minutes’ warning -- so that some actions, many of them automated, can be taken before the destructive waves (of shaking) arrive."

Japan, Mexico, Romania, Turkey and Taiwan all have earthquake early warning systems. Will California have what it needs to be prepared, or will budget cuts prevent an early earthquake detection system from materializing?

Allen is hopeful. Speaking to Scientific American, he said he believes California is the place where earthquake innovation is most likely.

"The U.S. is behind the rest of the world, but a new test bed being deployed in California should soon lead to a full-scale warning system in that fault-ridden state," he said. "California is long past due for the next big one. if we build a warning system now, we can save lives."

Photo: BerkeleyUSGS

RelatedSeismologists urge creation of earthquake early warning system along Pacific Coast

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