BART puts early earthquake warning system to use

September 25, 2012 6:19:57 PM PDT
UC Berkeley seismologists will be testifying in Congress later this week, urging the government to build and pay for an early earthquake warning system which they've developed. BART, which is now using the system, just launched it a couple of months ago. It has become the first train system in the country to incorporate the early earthquake warning system.

The siren gives a minute's warning before a quake hits, enough time to protect yourself. Sound futuristic? Well, it's not. That technology is already here. Seismic scientists from UC Berkeley have successfully tested it. They've planted sensors all over the Bay Area which can detect seismic waves from an earthquake's epicenter.

Electronic alerts are sent over the internet to end users like BART. The train system has developed a software program that analyses that data, then automates a response. "We then use that software to initiate a command through our central computer that sends a command to the field that puts the trains into breaking mode and limits them to 25 miles per hour at top speed," BART Chief Engineer Carlton Allen said. That's important because trains can be damaged by tremors. The faster they're going, the stronger they'll shake.

Google is also receiving the alerts. Social media companies are an important component to the early warning system because UC seismologist Richard Allen says the project's goal is to broaden the warnings to the general public. "So, I'm sure that Google along with other companies will be very interested in how they might sort of send out this alert to large numbers of people," he said. The amount of warning you get depends on where you are to the epicenter of the quake. "Though it can range from zero seconds, not everyone will get a warning, but up to tens of seconds. In the best case scenario, about a minute's worth of warning. So that's the time range."

The seismologists will testify before Congress Friday and they'll ask Congress to approve funding so that parts of the country that are susceptible to earthquakes can design and build the early warning system.


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