Photo: The 6.7 magnitude Northridge Earthquake caused $2.5 billion in damages to roads and buildings, according to FEMA. Photo courtesy of FEMA

Earthquakes are unlike hurricanes and floods because they can't be predicted. But what if there was warning system to alert residents that the ground would start shaking in 10 to 15 seconds? Although this doesn't sound like very much time, it would provide the opportunity for:

  • people to move out of a hazardous environment;
  • technology to go into safe mode or save an important document;
  • elevators to stop at the next floor and open their doors;
  • trains to decelerate; and
  • alarms to sound in operating rooms so doctors can put down potentially dangerous tools.

In only 15 seconds, people would have the opportunity to improve their safety and prevent data loss. This is what seismologists and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are trying to provide California residents -- a publicly available early warning earthquake system.

"The idea is that you detect the beginnings of the earthquake, and then you rapidly assess the magnitude that earthquake poses, and provide a warning to people before the shaking starts," said Richard Allen, seismology professor at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. "We're talking about very short periods of time -- a few seconds to a few tens of seconds."

The combination of new technologies and expanded understanding about earthquakes is letting seismologists move closer to issuing public alerts before people feel the first tremor. "There's a recognized need for more rapid earthquake information, particularly in our digital age," said David Oppenheimer, seismologist for the USGS. "There are certain applications that could be used with earthquake early warning to mitigate the impacts of an earthquake. That's our mission."

Proof of Concept

Earthquake early warning isn't a new idea. On Oct. 1, 2007, the Japan Meteorological Agency launched the most advanced early warning system to date, which provides alerts through media outlets and Internet applications when an earthquake is detected. Systems also have been established in Mexico City, Turkey, Taiwan and Romania, Allen said.

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Elaine Pittman Elaine Pittman  |  Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.