L.A. Now

Watch early earthquake warning system in action in Mexico City

A television broadcast captured Mexico City's early earthquake warning system working successfully Friday, giving TV viewers in the capital more than a minute of warning before major shaking from a magnitude 7.2 earthquake rumbled into the city.

California still lacks an early quake warning system as state and federal lawmakers haven't agreed to pay for the $16 million-a-year system. 

The Mexican warning system could be seen on television (video below), when news announcer Eduardo Salazar calmly tells viewers that at 9:27 a.m. a seismic alert went off, triggering a shrieking whine on the broadcast. “At this moment, we have felt absolutely nothing,” the anchor says initially.

More than a minute after the first warning, shaking rolls through the television studio in Mexico City, strong enough to knock the news anchor from his stance. His voice strains as the shaking worsens, and he says the studio’s lights are swaying and that some of his staff are preparing to leave. He speaks louder: “It’s a strong earthquake.”

The system also gave 27 seconds of warning to Acapulco, about 80 miles away from the epicenter, said Doug Given, geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey. 

Mexico City has struggled to get the warning system's message spread more widely -- warnings are not distributed widely on smart phones. But those who were watching TV or heard the sirens got seconds of warning not available to the public in California. 

“It did what it was expressly designed to do: warn Mexico City about … earthquakes off the west coast of Mexico,” said Doug Given, geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey. The system also gave 27 seconds of warning to Acapulco, about 80 miles away from the epicenter, Given said.

Mexico created the world's first quake warning system that alerted the public, enacting it even before quake-prone Japan did. Mexico's quake early warning system began operation 21 years ago after an 8.0 earthquake in 1985 killed 9,500 people.

Japan followed suit after the 6.9 Kobe earthquake in 1995, which killed mroe than 5,000; Taiwan after more than 2,000 died in a 7.6 quake in 1999; Turkey after more than 17,000 died in a 7.6 quake; and in China after a 7.9 quake killed more than 70,000 in 2008. 

"At this point, all of the operational systems are there because of an earthquake that killed thousands of people," U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones said. 

The latest successful test of the regions Seismic Alert System came as state and federal authorities have struggled to find funding for an early quake warning system for California.

The federal government has not supplied funding, and a bill passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year prohibits state general fund money from being used to develop the system.

Unlike California, Mexico has invested heavily in developing an early earthquake warning system many years ago.

But by comparison, Japan's early warning system is far more advanced, with many smart phone apps available as well as computer programs that announce a pending earthquake's arrival. 

During the 9.0 earthquake in 2011 in Japan, a television network (see video below) flashed a quake warning more than a minute before the first shaking was felt at a Parliament hearing, and about two minutes before violent shaking is felt at the network’s studios.

The early warnings gave news anchors to cut in before the worst shaking arrived in the capital.

Early alerts give bullet trains time to slow down before shaking starts, limiting the risk of derailment. One Japanese factory has even figured out a way to secure noxious chemicals between the time a quake warning is heard to before the shaking arrives, Given said.

(Friday's Mexico earthquake terrified residents, but there were no initial reports of serious injuries or major damage in the capital.) 

Below is a video of the Mexican broadcast and a summary of what is said in the warning about the earthquake shaking:

The U.S. Geological Survey has done extensive work on a prototype early earthquake warning system, but it needs to be developed for prime time. More earthquake sensors are needed, as are robust communications systems between the sensors and central computer systems. More testing needs to happen to reduce the chance of a false alarm or a failure of the system, Given said.

The lack of funding has meant that some earthquake-sensing stations aren’t maintained. Jones has said the nearest warning station closest to a 6.8 earthquake off California’s northern coast on March 9 was out of order when that temblor hit.

California’s restriction on using state general fund money to finance the quake warning system leaves the state’s Office of Emergency Services to look for other sources, both private and public, to cover costs.

After a 5.1 earthquake hit La Habra on March 28, a group of California Congress members – all Democrats -- signed a letter asking for federal funding of the system.

"Even a few seconds of warning before the next Big One will allow people to seek cover, automatically slow or stop trains, pause surgeries and more -- and the benefits of this small investment now will be paid back many times over after the first damaging quake,’" said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).

Rep. Ken Calvert, a Corona Republican newly appointed to the chairman of the Interior subcomittee that oversees the U.S. Geological Survey, said two weeks ago he would consider the funding if convinced the warning system works.

Below is a Japanese TV network broadcast during the 9.0 earthquake in 2011:

Below shows an early quake warning showing up on a computer before shaking arrives in Japan:


LAPD in mourning after 3 officers killed in 2 months

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times