State lawmaker backs early earthquake warning system for California


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A state lawmaker is proposing legislation that would seek to create an early earthquake warning system for California.

Details were expected to be released at a news conference Monday.


Earthquake experts welcomed the attention from Sacramento. California has struggled to develop an early warning system that can give seconds of crucial warning that an earthquake is headed their way. Japan and Mexico have already established quake warning systems.

An extensive warning system would require the construction of a network of sensors in the ground. When waves from a quake start moving through the ground, electronic signals -- which move far faster than a quake itself -- can send an alert that the shaking will come soon.

A temblor along the San Andreas fault around the Salton Sea, for instance, could give up to a full minute of warning time before shaking occurred in Los Angeles.

“This is an important advance in bringing early warning to California,” said Doug Given, the early earthquake warning project coordinator with the USGS. “This would represent an advance in the state of California in its participation in those efforts.”

Researchers have been testing a prototype in California called Shake Alert, but the system still has “fragilities that would probably not allow it to work during a very large earthquake,” Given said. There are currently not enough stations set up in California where an earthquake could occur –- potentially more active fault lines, for example, and “the infrastructure right now is not robust enough to ensure that it can work reliably” on a large scale.

‘It’s not ready for prime time,” Given said. But if lawmakers give their full backing to the project, he said, California will be ‘way out ahead on this.’

The uses for early earthquake warnings fall into two major categories, Given said. Automatic responses could be triggered to slow and stop public transportation and shut off valves in places like factories. Schools can react in time, elevators in office buildings can be stopped, and cars can be prevented from entering bridges and tunnels.

State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), who is sponsoring the legislation, said even having a city receive half a minute of warning could help save lives before a large quake.

“What would happen if people had 30 to 60 seconds before the shaking started? It means you could save a child. Teachers to tell their students to take cover. Operators can stop a train. On and on and on. With a little additional warning, we can mitigate a lot of the damage and injuries, and even deaths, that we associate with big earthquakes,’ Padilla said.

He envisions the current test project will be converted into multiple projects. And he wants to expand past the television and radio emergency broadcast system to a text-message system and other methods with broader reach.

“I think the opportunities are tremendous,” he said. “We can save a lot of lives and save a lot of money.”


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-- Rosanna Xia