California’s Earthquake Early Warning System Gets Green Light

It’s my first morning in Japan. Although I’m still jet-lagged, I come wide awake as my phone nearly buzzes off the table. When I fumble for it, a notification unlike any I’ve ever seen awaits me: there’s an earthquake on the way, and I can expect light shaking.

I’ve just gotten a taste of Japan’s Kinkyu Jishin Sokuho, or Earthquake Early Warning system, and as a California native, I have to wonder where it’s been all my life.

Periodic alerts followed me up and down Japan during my travels, and they intrigued me enough to conduct some research. Taiwan and Mexico City both use forms of EEW, but the United States doesn’t — despite the constant warnings of the “big one.”

The technology exists, and agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey in collaboration with the University of California Berkeley have been engaged in development efforts. But until now, they faced a big barrier: money.

Despite committing to the need for EEW, California resisted providing funding — until now.

This week Governor Gerry Brown requested $10 million from the state’s general fund for a system that would start rolling out in 2018, initially to agencies and large companies and ultimately to ordinary civilians.

California is probably most famous for its 1906 earthquake — and fire, which wrought even more destruction – but a host of smaller quakes, including Northridge, Loma Prieta and a recent tremblor in Napa, did their fair share of damage too.

A major quake has the capacity to cause billions of dollars in damage and alter an untold number of lives. Even a few seconds of warning can make a huge difference when it comes to earthquake survivability. And that’s precisely what these systems provide.

A car crushed under a row of Edwardian houses in San Francisco.

A crushed car in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Photo credit: CIR

Unlike tsunamis, hurricanes and other major weather events, earthquakes don’t exactly ring the doorbell before barging in. Researchers have trouble forecasting them even as they learn more about quake behavior and different kinds of faults.

However, geoscientists are beginning to develop the necessary instrumentation, and body of data, to support an early warning system.

The way it works is quite fascinating, and I’ll let the California Integrated Seismic network explain it for you:

The objective of earthquake early warning is to rapidly detect the initiation of an earthquake, estimate the level of ground shaking to be expected, and issue a warning before significant ground shaking starts. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. We use this to estimate the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected. The method can provide warning before the S-wave, which brings the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage, arrives.

Prototype systems have already proved useful in San Francisco and Los Angeles. But they shouldn’t be confused with forecasting.

Researchers are not predicting when and where earthquakes will strike. Instead, they’re relying on realtime data about earthquakes as they happen to push warnings out as quickly as possible.

Collapsed buildings and rubble in a California street after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

More Loma Prieta damage. Photo credit: CIR

Such an initiative requires much equipment, maintenance and computer modeling, which is why it’s so expensive — and that’s before the system even starts pushing out notifications.

California’s focus on making the technology available to organizations and companies first makes sense. First responders can really benefit from early warning, for instance, while companies might need to shut down sensitive processes, evacuate employees or secure electrical, fire suppression and plumbing systems.

Railway, light rail and subway systems can also benefit from EEW — one reason Japan Railways was an early adopter. Malls, schools and other public locations are another area of focus.

Eventually, anyone in California with a mobile phone could receive a warning just like I did that morning in Japan. For those of us jaded by frequent quakes, a “light shaking” warning might not evoke much of a response, but more serious warnings could be a sign to get to safety – Drop, Cover, and Hold On is the name of the game.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) has been a major advocate to get EEW up and running for California, as has Jerry Hill, a state senator from San Mateo. Both men are responding to research indicating that California is overdue for a major seismic event.

The sooner the state implements a system, the better. And since it takes years to set up equipment and a framework for administration, as well as education for agencies and the public, California needs to hustle.

The commitment to fund EEW may also spur Washington, Oregon and Alaska to do the same. All of these states sit along the seismically active “Ring of Fire,” and may be at risk of major earthquakes and tsunamis.

Photo credit: Hitchster


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Chad Anderson
Chad A2 years ago

Maybe if the US had a democracy again instead of an oligarchy, ideas to help real people with real situations might be at the forefront of government.

Patricia Harris
John Taylor2 years ago

Ricky T., that is exactly why I suggested that these moronic dopes stopped with their crazy attempts to make a few bucks!!!!

Ricky T.
Ricky T2 years ago

There'll need it even more so with fracking increasing the risk.

Bill Eagle
Bill Eagle2 years ago

Good for California. I hope that they can get a successful early warning system. Our entire west coast should also have a system, since Oregon and Washington are also earthquake prone.

Sherry Kohn
Sherry K2 years ago

Many thanks to you !

Danuta Watola
Danuta W2 years ago

Thanks for the information

Debbi -.
Debbi -2 years ago

Finally! And yes, Oregon and Washington also need the same system. Oregon coast does have an early warning Tsunami system in place.

Shirley S.
Shirley S2 years ago

Warning is essential to help avert tragedy.

william Miller
william Miller2 years ago