A California state lawmaker announced legislation on Monday, Jan. 28, to build an $80 million early warning system that would alert state residents seconds before an earthquake hits.

If approved, the system would take a year or two to deploy and warn residents about a minute before the shaking starts, said Sen. Alex Padilla, during a news conference at the California Institute of Technology Seismological Laboratory (Caltech) in Pasadena.

"The bottom line is this," Padilla said. "It's not a matter of if the next big one hits, it's a matter of when."

He pointed to a study released in early January from the California Institute of Technology and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology that says California could be struck by a massive quake involving both the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

Building upon the existing California Integrated Seismic Network, seismologists envision a system that would process data from an array of sensors throughout the state, according to a press release. The system would detect the strength and the progression of earthquakes, alert the public within seconds and provide up to 60 seconds advance warning before potentially damaging ground shaking is felt.

Michael Gurnis, a professor of Geophysics at Caltech and director of the Seismological Laboratory, said the proposed system would help Californians survive a massive quake. "Caltech firmly believes that earthquake early warning could save lives in California in the event of a major earthquake," he said during the Monday news conference.

Such a system, Padilla added, wouldn't just alert the public, "it would also speed the response of police and fire personnel by quickly identifying areas hardest hit by the quake."

Padilla said the projected cost for the system is around $80 million, but ongoing operation and maintenance costs after deployment are unknown. Funding could come from a combination of federal and state sources, though public-private partnerships also are welcome, he said. "We've got to deploy it sooner rather than later; we don't want to sit here after the next big one saying, 'Why didn't we do that?'"

The senator noted that the magnitude 6.7 Northridge Earthquake, which hit the Los Angeles area in 1994, caused at least $13 billion in damage. With a 99.7 percent likelihood of another magnitude 6.7 earthquake in the state in the next 30 years -- and a 94 percent chance of a magnitude 7.0 -- the warning system is a smart investment, Padilla said. “We all know a big quake will hit again in the future. We should be smart and use our advanced science and technology to detect seismic activity and alert people in advance of an approaching quake."

Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, Turkey, Romania, Italy and China either have or are working on earthquake early warning systems -- "the U.S. and California should be the lead, not following," Padilla said. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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Jessica Mulholland has been a writer and editor for more than 10 years. She was previously the editor of Emergency Management magazine, and she loves that she can incorporate her love of photography into her work as a part of the Government Technology editorial team. Jessica can be reached at jmulholland@govtech.com and @jbronwen on Twitter.