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Seismologists test Calif quake warning system

September 20, 2011 12:58:53 AM PDT
Seismologist Elizabeth Cochran was sitting in front of her computer earlier this month at the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena when she got a warning that a 4.2-magnitude earthquake had just struck Newhall and that she might feel shaking in five seconds.

"I waited for the countdown, sat in my chair and see if I could actually feel the event. I just barely felt probably the 'S' wave arriving," she said.

The "S" wave is a red line on a map on her screen that's part of a system that's being tested in California to warn people ahead of an earthquake.

The "S" wave Cochran referred to extends outwardly on her screen. It follows a faster-moving, but less damaging "P" wave in yellow. The "P" wave activates the warning system ahead of the stronger waves.

Five seconds doesn't sound like much of a warning, but in many cases, Cochran says it's enough time to get out of harm's way.

"It's very exciting," said California Institute of Technology professor Dr. Tom Heaton. "This was the first time people actually got a warning from the system and then felt an earthquake."

Ultimately, scientists hope to build a public warning system like the one used in Japan that can even shut down bullet trains and power lines.

When the magnitude-9 earthquake struck Japan in March, many people in Tokyo had a 30-second warning before the shaking began. Researchers say it may have saved thousands of lives.

Japan has spent upwards of $500 million on their warning system.

Caltech and the University of California at Berkeley are operating on a shoestring budget of about $450,000 a year.

"There's no question this system can and will work," Heaton said. "The question is, do we have to wait for some sort of tragedy in order to invest in a system like this? Unfortunately in the earthquake business often the answer is yes."

Scientists say there are some minor flaws and bugs in their system.


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