An earthquake early warning system -- like the one that saved lives last month in Japan -- could be operating in California within five years, giving residents a full 60 seconds to prepare for a Big One, leading seismic researchers said Tuesday.
Japan's warning system set alarms and cell phones sounding in Tokyo, allowing the city's schoolchildren and residents nearly a half-minute to duck and cover, said Richard Allen, assistant director of the University of California-Berkeley's Seismological Laboratory.
Allen said teams of scientists have been working for more than a decade to develop a statewide warning system. He estimated the system could be up and running at a cost of $80 million. Annual operating costs would be $20 million.
At a news conference Tuesday, after a two-day meeting on the system's progress, Allen said scientists at Berkeley, California Institute of Technology and other institutions have been teaming up successfully to develop the complex algorithms involved in computing the timing of shock waves after an earthquake and converting them to signals that can be transmitted throughout California.
"Now is the time for the broader engagement of users," he said, directing his comments to an audience that included representatives of California's U.S. senators, state government, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and major Silicon Valley corporations whose work would be severely disrupted if their high-tech labs couldn't shut down in time to avoid a major shock.
The vice president of the Bay Area Rapid Transit's board of directors noted that his agency's quake-warning system, which is "up and running in a crude form now," enables trains to stop within seconds after an earthquake. But John McPartland said a major quake during rush hour with 60 BART trains in service would mean "a mass casualty event of biblical proportions."
McPartland said a quake early warning system would prove immensely valuable for air traffic controllers, who could warn pilots not to land where runways might be damaged, and for surgeons, who could postpone operations knowing their hospitals might lose power.
Allen, together with Thomas Heaton of Caltech and John Vidale of the University of Washington, have been working on warning systems for years, along with Douglas D. Given, the U.S. Geological Survey's coordinator of early-warning development. His agency has funneled $10 million of federal stimulus money into the project, but has no more to give.
"The spirit is willing, but the budget is weak," Given said.
Heaton said a full-scale early warning system deployed in Southern California could give Los Angeles nearly a full minute's alert following a major quake along the southernmost end of the San Andreas Fault near the Salton Sea.
The systems are based on the relative speeds of the principal shock waves that quakes generate when they rupture the ground at their epicenters. P waves, called primary, are the first to speed out from a quake's epicenter, and S waves -- also known as secondary, or shear waves -- follow more slowly a few seconds later.
In early-warning systems, arrays of seismometers equipped with the fully developed computer programs dubbed Elarms could instantly detect a quake's magnitude and location, predict where its ground shaking would be strongest, and transmit warnings to areas in danger, Allen explained.