Quake experts discuss possible warning system

April 5, 2011 7:33:32 PM PDT
There is a way to predict earthquakes -- not days or months in advance, but by maybe a minute or two. Such a system already exists. It worked in Japan. Scientists want it here, but money is an issue.

Of all the places to make a pitch for earthquake safety, why not UC Berkeley, in a building that practically straddles the ripe and ready Hayward Fault.

"We're talking about a few seconds, tens of seconds," Cal Tech seismologist Thomas Heston PhD said.

Precious seconds of advance notice, according to Richard Allen PhD of UC Berkeley.

Tuesday, he and other earthquake experts pitched an early warning system in California, like the one that saved countless lives in Japan, last month. In Sendai, it gave residents five to ten seconds warning. In Tokyo, as many as 30. Time enough, say the experts.

"Well if you are in harm's way you can get away from things that will fall on you," Heston said.

Heston actually carries such a system in his laptop. In Japan, it allowed operators of high speed trains to slow down enough that none derailed. Without one in California, the vice president of BART's board of directors warns of costly and dangerous derailments when the big one hits.

"And if we wind up derailing 10-20 trains, that is a mass casualty event of biblical proportions," John McPartland said.

In california, the system would act more like a network, linking some 500 detectors already around the state. It could warn people by cell phones. If we had had such a system before Loma Prieta, San Francisco would have had 20 seconds warning.

"We think we're five years away if we get the necessary level of funding," Allen said.

The system would cost $80 million in that time, but with federal budget cuts looming, it may not happen at all. These researchers say such a decision, even in these tough times, would cost a lot more money later on.

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