Environment & Science

California gets $5 million in funding for quake warning system

In this Sept. 13, 2011 file photo, Anthony Guarino Jr., a seismic analyst at the California Institute of Technology, demonstrates an early earthquake warning system in Pasadena, Calif. Now, $5 million has reportedly been allocated in a major spending bill approved by Congress on Saturday, December 13, 2014, to expand the limited program developed by Caltech, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey.
In this Sept. 13, 2011 file photo, Anthony Guarino Jr., a seismic analyst at the California Institute of Technology, demonstrates an early earthquake warning system in Pasadena, Calif. Now, $5 million has reportedly been allocated in a major spending bill approved by Congress on Saturday, December 13, 2014, to expand the limited program developed by Caltech, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Reed Saxon/AP

In a major move for earthquake safety, Congress set aside $5 million dollars to expand an early warning system that could give Californians valuable time to brace for shaking.

The system is operated by the U.S. Geological Survey and also extends to Oregon and Washington.

It could alert the public when seismic waves are spreading so that trains can brake, utilities can be shut off and people can seek cover.

"It's very exciting," noted U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, adding that this is "life-saving technology."

This boost in funding comes as part of the $1.1 trillion spending bill approved by Congress, according to a joint statement Monday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank.

Feinstein called it "a down payment" and added that "more funding is necessary to complete the system."

Scientists have tried to make the alert system publicly available, but money has been a problem. The USGS says it needs $16 million a year to build out and maintain the warning system.

Currently the USGS is testing a limited network developed in conjunction with the California Institute of Technology; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Washington.

"We're well behind other countries that have successfully put this into place," noted Rep. Schiff. 

California trails Japan, Mexico and other earthquake-prone areas in developing a public alert system.

Schiff hopes this initial funding will  "jumpstart the state legislature to also, not only voice support for [the early warning system], as it has, but also put the money down on the table."

Last year, California legislators passed a bill last year asking officials to set up a seismic early warning system. They have until January 2016 to get funding for it in place.

The earthquake early warning system doesn't predict quakes. Rather, it's able to send alerts as soon as shaking begins near a fault.

Specialized sensors detect the first rumblings of a quake and blast out a warning that travels roughly the speed of light.

Since the seismic waves of the earthquake are much slower, the warning can reach cities before the ground motion arrives, giving people time to prepare.

One limitation of the system is that it cannot provide warnings for those directly on top of a fault.

Several moderate earthquakes this year in Southern California produced successful early warnings. Officials testing the system in San Francisco got eight seconds of warning before strong shaking arrived from the 6.0-magnitude earthquake near Napa in August.

At the moment, there are about 625 sensors in the system. USGS would like to add about 1,000 more, including 700 in California, before they officially roll out the alerts to the public.

Doug Given, a geophysicist with the USGS, said that a chunk of this $5 million will go to adding sensors in Southern California near the dangerous Elsinore and San Jacinto faults.

In the Bay area, the money will be used to place sensor near the Hayward fault and the northern extension of the San Andreas.

Given added that there are about 800 sensors already in place that could be integrated into the early warning system, but they would need about $600 dollars in upgrades to allow them to send messages in real time.

That's not a huge cost, but he explained each one would also require about $600 a year to stay connected to a high-speed communication system.

"The problem is paying the phone bill year after year."

In addition to adding sensors, USGS is in talks with the L.A. Unified School District and The Los Angeles City Fire Department to further test the system.

For instance, the Fire Department might be interested in using alerts to automatically open fire doors so that major shaking doesn't leave them stuck in a closed position.

Given said the USGS also hopes to use some of the $5 million to upgrade and rigorously test the software behind the warning system.

Once fully funded, Given estimates it would take about two years to get the system ready for public use.