SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — In the coming years, Californians could have valuable seconds of warning before earthquakes such as this week’s wine country temblor reach them, allowing trains to slow down or stop, power plants and factories to shut off valves, and schoolchildren to dive under desks to avoid falling objects.
Earthquake early warning systems that provide such notice are in place in Mexico and Japan. But California has lagged behind those countries, and is still trying to identify funding sources for the roughly $80 million needed to implement an early-warning system in the state.
Sunday’s rolling 6.0 shake near Napa has led to renewed calls for its quick deployment before another, possibly more destructive temblor strikes. Researchers are testing a system that could provide tens of seconds of warning, but it is not available for public use.
“(Mexico and Japan) acted after large tragic earthquakes that claimed thousands of lives,” Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, said. “I hope we don’t wait for a tragedy of that scale to finally act here in California.”
Richard Allen, director of the University of California, Berkeley, Seismological Lab, said his lab received a 10-second advance notice estimating a 5.7-magnitude quake and warning of light shaking before the seismic waves from Sunday’s quake arrived there. Allen is among the researchers testing the earthquake warning system envisioned as the basis for the state’s system.
Berkeley is about 40 miles from the quake’s epicenter and did not experience any damage during the quake, but in a more violent temblor, 10 seconds could have made a big difference, he said.
“A few seconds means that you can move to your safe zone, that you can get under that sturdy table; that way you are not going to be injured by falling fireplaces and ceiling lights. We see a large number of injuries resulting from these kinds of incidents.”
The systems can’t predict quakes, and are not effective at the epicenter, where the tremors go out almost simultaneously. The warning people receive — a few seconds to tens of seconds — depends on the distance from the epicenter.
Napa, where scores were injured in Sunday’s earthquake and much of the damage occurred, would have received at most a second of warning, said Thomas Heaton, a professor of engineering seismology at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.