U.S. should follow California lead on earthquake early warning, expert says

Although California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill last week to create a statewide earthquake early warning system, the United States is still behind the curve in embracing technology that has proven to save lives, lessen damage and speed recovery after a major quake.

Richard Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, makes this argument in a commentary in this week’s issue of the journal Nature. And he says it’s time to institute an early warning system in this country, “rather than waiting until the next big quake galvanizes political action” because of loss of life and property.

Simulated earthquake early warning generated by the ShakeAlert system for a repeat of the 1989 Loma Prieta M6.9 earthquake. Video shows the warning that would be received in Berkeley using the current demonstration system being tested by UC Berkeley, Caltech, the US Geological Survey and other partners.

Gov. Brown’s signing on Sept. 24 was “very exciting news, and something that we have been working toward for more than a decade,” said Allen, who is a professor of earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the state’s major proponents of an early warning system. “This bill will bring earthquake alerts to everyone in California.”

But the bill provides no money to develop or operate the system, which Allen and his colleagues estimate will cost California $80 million over five years to perfect the system and deploy additional seismic sensors around the state and another $12 million per year to operate. Expanding the system to the entire West Coast would raise the price to $120 million over five years and cost $16 million annually to operate.

“Now that we have the law on the books, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services must coordinate construction and identify funding for the project,” said Allen.

Japan has had a nationwide alert system since 2007 that provided seconds of warning after the devastating magnitude-9 Tohoku-Oki quake in 2011. The warning stopped trains, paused sensitive manufacturing equipment and allowed students to dive under desks. Earthquake-prone areas such as China, Taiwan, Mexico, Turkey and Romania already offer alerts, sometimes to the general public. Yet, U.S. politicians have not had the political will to establish such a system, Allen said. California State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) was the first legislator to push for such a system.

“We are fortunate to have leaders like Governor Brown and Senator Padilla who are willing to take action now to build an earthquake early warning system before the next big earthquake,” he said.

Businesses and government agencies also should be pushing for a system, Allen said. In his commentary, he noted that Oki Electric Industry, a Japanese chip manufacturer, saved millions of dollars after installing early warning improvements in its plant, and reopened within days of a recent quake, rather than the weeks it took after previous quakes.

“Businesses should be thinking about how to take advantage of an earthquake warning system, whether for their own protective measures, or to identify business opportunities to sell early warning products – like smartphone or tablet apps – to others,” he said.

In Northern California, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, Google and the City of San Francisco have already invested in developing the current demonstration system, ShakeAlert, while in Southern California, Amgen, the city and county of Los Angeles and the area’s Metrolink light rail system have shown interest. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation also is supporting development of ShakeAlert, which is being spearheaded by UC Berkeley, Caltech, the United States Geological Survey, the Southern California Earthquake Center and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

“Politicians, business leaders and agency administrators need to recognize the significance and urgency of seismic risk,” and institute a nationwide early warning system now, said Allen.

“We are fairly hopeful that the California Office of Emergency Services will pick this up and will run with it,” he said. “We will do everything we can to make sure that they do.”

A map of California's seismic hazards showing faults in red and the minutes of warning possible in urban areas after large quakes at various places along the fault.

A map of  earthquake hazards in California, red being most vulnerable, showing the minutes of early warning possible in urban areas after large quakes at various places along the state’s faultlines (red). Image by Richard Allen, UC Berkeley.

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