The West Coast moved a step closer to a functional earthquake early warning system today, with the White House announcing plans to expand technology developed by UC Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey from a demonstration to a prototype system.
Credit: California Magazine
The system—dubbed ShakeAlert—consists of three essential components, says Richard Allen, the director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and the chairman of the university’s Department of Earth & Planetary Science. First are seismometers and geodetic sensors, which detect earth movement. These relay any terrestrial twitching and spasms to computers, where powerful algorithms digest the data and predict quake intensity for various areas. Based on these algorithmic conclusions, warnings are relayed to the public through a variety of media, including mobile phones, radio and television—or in some cases, directly to the computers controlling automated systems such as BART and building elevators.
“The sensors detect the very low amplitude energy waves (that typically precede large quakes), which are then analyzed by the very robust algorithms we’ve developed,” says Allen. “Then, of course, we have that crucial final stage, where you have to push the alert out to everyone as quickly as possible, using all available means.”
The entire process must be seamless, because the advantages provided by ShakeAlert are modest in terms of timescale: Citizens will get a heads-up only seconds to a couple of minutes before a major quake hits. But that, of course, can make all the difference. Say, for example, you’re working on the chassis of your shakily jacked-up ’55 Chevy, or admiring the halberd poised over your head in a museum of antique arms and armor. A 10-second a-ooogah from your smart phone could be a literal life saver. Further, trains could be automatically stopped before they enter dubious tunnels or cross shaky bridges, and elevators could be halted before cables snap and carriages plunge. And a one-or two-minute warning? Schools and seismically deficient office buildings could be evacuated. Brain surgeries could be safely halted. Jetliners about to land at vulnerable runways could be diverted to other airports.