Local Geologists: What California Needs Now is an Earthquake Early Warning System

Published : Monday, September 25, 2017 | 5:22 AM

Source: ShakeAlert.org

One of the world’s epicenters for highly advanced earthquake research is Pasadena’s Caltech and its partner institutions, where present and past staff geologists agree that technology today allows for a trustworthy earthquake early warning system which though relatively cheap, is getting neither attention nor funds.

Earthquake Early Warning systems, which are able to warn people and give them a few precious seconds to duck for cover before a quake hits, are already saving lives in other countries.

Why not in California?

“I’ll be really cynical and say, because we haven’t killed enough people in an earthquake yet,” Lucy Jones, a U.S. Geological Survey seismologist whose expertise on earthquakes and TV appearances after all local seismic events earned her the nickname the “Earthquake Lady.”

Jones says the few seconds that come between the warning and the actual shaking can make a big difference in saving lives and preventing injury, especially since the warning will also tell people about the expected seismic intensity when the quake hits.

“Ignore magnitude. We need to be talking about seismic intensity,” Jones said. “It is what shaking that you’re receiving. So that’s part of the education that you have to do and how people understand: what’s intensity and what could be the best way to communicate that.”

Jones said the U.S. Congress should be convinced that keeping funding available for research and development is necessary so that the Geological Survey could build a reliable warning system – even for the West Coast only for the meantime – and keep it maintained.

The New York Times Editorial Board said Friday that although the Geological Survey is building a warning system called ShakeAlert for California, Oregon and Washington and a prototype is up and running that “Congress has not appropriated the money to finish it. Officials say just 40 percent of the necessary field stations have been built so far.”

“The Geological Survey says that it would cost $38 million to finish the system and $16 million a year to operate it,” said the Times. “…the price tag of just one F-35 fighter jet is nearly $100 million. The United States can afford to spend a few million dollars to provide earthquake warnings to states that are home to 50 million people, or nearly one in six Americans.”

Jones said any warning system should ride along the existing seismic network – the network of earthquake sensors that measure intensity and send it to the Geological Survey – to both be effective as well as inexpensive, Jones said.

The Geological Survey, along with its state and university partners, has been testing “ShakeAlert” on the West Coast. Problem is, long-term funding still needs to be secured before it can begin sending general public notifications through mobile applications, the ShakeAlert website (https://www.shakealert.org) said.

The Geological Survey plans to begin limited public notifications by 2018, it added.

Douglas D. Given, Earthquake Early Warning Coordinator at the Geological Survey, coordinates the agency’s efforts with its partners in developing the ShakeAlert system, said countries that have warning systems already in place – like Japan, China and Mexico – built those systems after large killer earthquakes.

“We have seen across the other countries that political will is there after a big earthquake,” Given said. “But we have not had a large damaging earthquake in the United States in quite a long time, and we know that if there were one tomorrow that the full funding for the EEW system would follow soon after.”

As a scientist, Given thinks the need for an effective and reliable warning system is competing with lots of other priorities in the minds of Washington’s decision makers.

“Even though the price tag of an early warning system is not very great, it’s still competing with health care and environmental issues and jobs and all sorts of things,” Given said. “So it’s a bit of an uphill battle politically to get the funding we need.”

Given said based on a 2014 estimate, the EEW for three West Coast states (Washington, California and Oregon) could cost about $38 million to build and $16 million a year to operate. These states combined for 77 percent ($4.1 billion) of the national average annual loss ($5.3 billion) due to earthquakes according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It’ll probably go up because of inflation and some other factors but it still gives you a sense that it’s less than $1 per person in the population of this state,” Given said. “The Japanese spent more than half a billion dollars on their system.”

Dr. Kenneth Hudnut, Science Advisor for Risk Reduction at Geological Survey in Pasadena, said the state and federal governments are trying to put all the resources needed for a reliable EEW system using the existing research network in southern California. Hudnut is also a Visiting Associate in Geophysics on the faculty at Caltech.

“Here at Caltech, that network has been brought up to speed so that it can support rapid data handling; that’s what you need to do earthquake early warning,” Hudnut said. “But more sensors are needed and even better more perfected automation of our software. Essentially, that’s where we are working hard on all these things concurrently and so we appreciate the support that we have had so far and we continue to need additional support in order to make this real.”

Hudnut and the other scientists hope Washington could have more foresight and make changes happen before disaster hits, instead of looking at the EEW system as just one of the many funding concerns.

For Doug Given, people could help a lot by convincing their political leaders to move on and get the EEW system in place – before it’s too late.

“I think the most effective thing would be to reach out to your elected officials to get the funding to complete the system,” he said.