PASADENA – Imagine a system of millions of sensors dotting the landscape and able to feed a computer with information about subtle shifts in the earth.
Imagine an algorithm that could sort that information and make light-speed determinations on whether to send out a series of warnings to millions of people about an impending earthquake seconds before dangerous shock waves begin.
Such a system is no longer confined to the imagination.
On Friday, hundreds of earthquake gurus, structural engineers and public safety officials converged on the Caltech campus for the Earthquake Research Affiliates conference to discuss the benefits and challenges of an early earthquake warning system for the region.
“In February 2011, earthquake alerting became a reality,” said Tom Heaton of the Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory at Caltech.
Heaton brainstormed the idea of an early warning system for earthquakes in 1979 – decades before the iPad and years before personal computers.
In February, a prototype was built; a month later Heaton had one parked in his home.
“March was my 60th birthday – I couldn’t have had a better birthday present than seeing my dream of 1979 working in my living room,” he said.
While Heaton’s system is relatively new to the United States, early earthquake systems are up and running in Mexico, Italy, Turkey and Japan, scientists said.
Japan’s system, which uses a combination of texts, sirens and broadcast messages, has paid dividends, according to Doug given, a U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist.
“Earthquake early warning saves millions of dollars,” given said.
He pointed to a semiconductor plant in the Sendai region of Japan. in two quakes prior to installing an early warning system the plant suffered $15million in damage. A few earthquake upgrades – and in particular the installation of the early warning system – minimized damages to about $200,000 during two more recent and significantly stronger quakes.
The same system prompted people in Japan to take cover seconds before the magnitude-9.0 March 11 quake rocked the country.
“Tokyo had a 30-second warning before heavy shaking reached the city,” given said.
But even as earthquake experts extolled the benefits of an early warning system, they acknowledged the limitations of such a system.
The system would not only need to gather information from sensors planted in the ground miles away, it also would need to determine the strength of the quake over time and decide what type of message to send to millions of people its path. And it must do it without assistance from scientists, first responders or politicians.
“It is completely automated,” given said. “There are no humans in the system – it would be too slow.”
With so many variables for how an earthquake will affect a region, Heaton questioned what type of message a system would send and how people would use the message.
“We have no idea how people are going to use this information,” he said. “If you’re a company and you’re running an operation, what do you do?”
And while parts of the population would be easy to reach through sirens, flashing billboards and broadcasts, current cell phone technology is not equipped to carry mass messages to millions.
“Using a simple text message won’t work,” given said. “You can’t send 10 million text messages to people at once.”
Work is under way on “cell broadcasting,” which could reach a broader audience, officials said.
And like any new technology, early warning systems will never provide a fail-safe level of protection.
“There are technical limitations to the earthquake early warning system,” said Maren Boese, a Caltech seismologist.
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