Early earthquake detection system is ready but not widely available

Mexico, Japan, China and other countries implemented warning systems, but only after massive quakes

At 4:31 a.m. on January 17, 1994, I first experienced rock ‘n’ roll, Los Angeles-style. That was a 6.7 on the Richter scale, which was big enough to collapse freeways, houses and send other transplanted New Yorkers back to the safety of the East Coast. Muggers, subway vigilantes and the polar vortex are for many apparently much more appealing than earthquakes.

I stayed long enough to be shaken up again last month by a nice little 5.1 shake that made LA all jittery again. But this time it was different—unlike 1994, I have a teenaged daughter now, and this was Livia’s first terrifying jolt into the world of earthquakes. During one of our heart-to-heart talks after the jolt, she asked, “Is there any way to predict a quake?”

Yes, Livia, there is. And even better, it’s got a great teenager-friendly name: the Earthquake Early Warning System, better known as EEW.

Dr. Tom Heaton, a Caltech professor (right), explains the Earthquake Early Warning System, or EEW, to contributor Kyle Hill.

I called our resident engineer, contributor Kyle Hill, and off we went to see our friends at Caltech. When you walk into their seismic center, you are greeted by a bank of large-screen TVs filled with seismic imagery.

Not long after we arrived, one of the EEW monitors started blaring. This was not a drill. There was an earthquake coming. It was fascinating and strangely disconcerting to watch it coming toward us on the map.

Via Caltech: CISN ShakeAlert - An earthquake early warning demonstration system for California. Real-time performance of UserDisplay during 2012 M3.5 Aromas earthquake. Epicenter is close to 1989 M6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake. Blue house marks user location; yellow and red circles show P- and S-wavefronts.

So apparently the warning system does work, and it was happening right before our eyes. Yes, this was better than getting shaken awake with no warning, but whatever was coming our way was due in 30 seconds—not a lot of time to do much of anything. I found myself fixated on the countdown screen, mesmerized and watching it come our way like an animated weather map on steroids.

It turned out to be not much of a quake, but I had a story to tell. This warning system works.

Dr. Tom Heaton, a professor we met after that warm welcome, is the kind of guy you want to be with when the big one hits. It’s not just his professorial outfit—although his suspenders were very cool—it’s the straight talk and deep knowledge of a man who’s studied quakes since the 1970s.

Heaton grabbed his pen and started giving Kyle a crash course in detection technology: Quakes emit two sets of waves. The first are harmless, and come ahead of the damaging waves. By early detection of the first waves, you can predict—or at least warn of—an oncoming quake. It’s like thunder and lightning. You see it first, then hear the boom.

Last month, we watched as a local TV anchorman soared into viral heaven when his morning newscast was interrupted by a smaller, 4.4 quake.

KTLA’s Chris Schauble is a friend of mine, so after going to Caltech, I was excited to let him know he would no longer have to suffer the embarrassment of disappearing under his anchor desk. Help is on the way! All you need is the earthquake early warning system. Surely Heaton would be able to give us an app for that!

Not so fast. This story is not just filled with science and technology but also irony. You see, the warning system is up and running—but it’s only a small, prototype and therefore not available for the public. It’s all about money and politics. Apparently to build a proper warning system would require some $80 million in funding, something the California legislature has not yet been willing to approve.

According to the “Los Angeles Times,” “California lawmakers last year passed legislation that prohibits spending state General Fund money on the early-warning system, leaving the state’s Office of Emergency Services to look for other sources, both private and public, to cover costs.”

While the politicians fight, the scientists do their work. Last year, the feds gave $5 million to purchase 100 new sensor stations for Southern California. In this week’s “TechKnow,” you’ll get to see Kyle and Dr. Heaton visiting of those stations buried deep in the rock in the hills around Pasadena, Calif.

As they lifted up the heavy metal door and climbed down into what looked like a small bomb shelter, it was clear science was outpacing politics. Heaton said that these sensors are strong enough to tell you exactly where the moon was in the sky above.

Here’s some more irony. We also went to UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Medical Center, one of LA’s busiest. They do advanced surgical procedures 24/7. The idea of a warning—any warning system—is very appealing. But no one had contacted them about testing one of the federally-funded sensors—not yet, anyway. Heaton says they are moving cautiously to include hospitals in their program, but only one has been brought in so far.

So while we have the technology, we don’t have the money or the political will to find the money to fund it. Countries such as  Mexico, Japan, China and India all have functioning earthquake warning systems. (We’ll show you how those systems work. Trust me, even if you don’t understand a word of Spanish, you’ll get the message.)

Final irony: Those systems were installed only after those nations experienced major quakes and major loss of life. Many predict that will be our fate. I hope not. As my teenager would say, that’s a real eeewww.


Watch “TechKnow” Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.


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