U.S. Scientists Build Internet-enabled Quake Alert System

March 22, 2001

Scientists at the California Institute of Technology and the U.S. Geological Survey are working on an Internet-enabled earthquake early-warning system for the state of California.

For the last five years, Caltech and the USGS have been upgrading Southern California’s network of quake detection stations — a system of sensors that digitally transmit the magnitude and velocity of earthquakes, the Industry Standard magazine’s website reported Tuesday.

The 21 million-dollar project is funded largely by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the city of Sacramento will put up 6.8 million dollars more to extend this “integrated seismic network” to Northern California.

By the end of the year, when 700 stations are up and running, southern California will be the best-monitored earthquake zone in the world, with sensors every nine miles. At that point, scientists can launch a pilot early warning program. Caltech is currently working on software to broadcast quake warnings over the Internet to emergency workers and local authorities.

“We find out that something is going on at one of our sensors almost at the speed of light,” said Jim Goltz, Caltech’s manager of earthquake programs. “The delay between us knowing what is going on and the ground motion may give us time to get a warning out.”

For instance, Goltz says a 7.5-magnitude earthquake at Bombay Beach on the San Andreas Fault would take about 75 seconds to reach metropolitan Los Angeles some 130 miles away. That might not seem like much time, but it could be enough to broadcast a warning and evacuate a school or shut down vulnerable segments of the power grid, provided that everyone’s Internet connection is working.

But some experts said that the system will be of little use for quakes that happen too close to home. For instance, the 1994 Northridge quake hit 25 miles outside of Los Angeles, killing 57 people and causing 40 billion dollars in damage. If you live near a quake’s epicenter, no warning will be early enough.

The USGS and Caltech are conducting a survey of potential users, focusing on schools, emergency services, transport and utilities, and health care institutions. The results will decide the project’s chances.

Says Caltech’s Goltz, “It all depends on whether it is feasible and whether it is wanted.” He expects a pilot program with up to 10 organizations to begin by the end of the year and says that if all goes well an alert system could be in place within a decade.

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