California Prepares For the Big One

The skyline of San Francisco appears above the evening fog as the suns sets on the Marin Headlands in Sausalito, California

Predicting the Big One: California to Roll Out Early Warning System

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The state of California will begin the rollout of an earthquake early warning system in the spring of 2018, according to statements made during an annual Japan Geoscience Union and American Geophysical Union meeting.

As detailed by Caltech seismologist Egill Hauksson during the meeting, earthquake sensors, improved software and additional operator hires are currently being implemented as early parts of the network are already online, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.

After California lawmakers and state Governor Jerry Brown approved $10 million in initial funding for the early warning system, network gaps are quickly being filled, and new regions are being monitored.

Richard Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, said, “We’re starting to add additional stations very rapidly. The contracts are now being signed for the state funding, which is largely being spent on putting out new stations.”

“They’re going to come online in the next year or so,” he added, according to Latimes.com, “so there will be pretty rapid expansion of the seismic network over the course of the next six months to two years.”

The US Geological Survey (USGS), working closely with scientists from Caltech, UC Berkeley, the University of Washington and the University of Oregon, will initiate a limited rollout of earthquake warning alerts in early 2018.

The network will first be linked to schools, allowing students and staff anywhere from a few seconds to a full minute or more — depending upon the strength and location of the quake — to take action.
USGS examples of preparedness include the explanation that a magnitude 7.8 earthquake at the Salton Sea in inland Southern California would take over a minute to arrive at Los Angeles, about 150 miles away.

Similar to early warning networks already in place in Japan and other countries, the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART commuter rail system currently slows or stops its trains in the event of an earthquake, reducing the risk of derailment and passenger injury.

Other earthquake early warning protocols would involve raising fire station garage doors to prevent them from being stuck closed if damaged, lowering water levels in canals above residential neighborhoods, and stopping turbines at power plants.

In the long term, warning notices will be delivered to cell phones and other digital devices.

Diego Melgar, a research geophysicist at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, suggested, “I think what is most likely to happen is that the rollout will be in stages, where the end goal is a West Coast-wide — from the Mexico-US border to the Canadian-US border — system. But it will probably be in stages,” cited by Latimes.com.

As the post-temblor shock wave travels through the ground at speeds slower than that of modern telecommunications, the valuable seconds provided by the early warning system would allow doctors to halt delicate surgeries, buildings to open elevator doors at the next available floor, and energy networks to halt the flow of natural gas and oil through major pipelines.

A preliminary prototype of the California earthquake early warning network has already proved its usefulness. After a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hit Napa in 2014, San Francisco had about eight seconds of warning before shaking began, allowing valuable moments for trains and trams to stop and first responder networks to go on alert.

In 2016, downtown Los Angeles had 30 seconds of warning before the shockwave hit from a magnitude 4.4 quake near Banning, some 83 miles to the East of the city.

It is estimated that $38 million will be required to build the network and about $16 million will be necessary to maintain and operate the earthquake warning system every year.

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