Published March 16, 2011
Ten seconds before the initial jolt shook people in northeastern Japan last Friday, an earthquake warning was sent out to millions of people across the country. Those in Tokyo were alerted a full minute before the earth started to shake.
The alert was the biggest test yet of Japan’s $1 billion earthquake early-warning system, and seismologists who are working to copy the system in the U.S. say it worked. “I’m convinced the system saved lives,” says Dr. Peggy Hellweg, a U.C. Berkeley seismologist. “There were also places where it saved money.”
Hellweg is part of a team developing the California Integrated Seismic Network. It has planted 400 high-tech sensors called seismometers 4 to 6 feet under the ground along the state’s most active earthquake fault lines. The federal government has funded the effort the past four years through grants totaling $5 million. But the program is now on shaky ground. President Obama’s 2012 budget provides no money for the quake warning system.
Bill Steele, a seismologist at the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, is discouraged the government funding is getting cut off, but he’s not entirely surprised. “We’re not very good at dealing with long-term problems,” Steele says, “and earthquakes are one of them.” Even with continued funding, a functioning earthquake warning system is still years away in the U.S. It’s estimated that it will take $80 million to finish the system in California.
Meanwhile, scientists in the Pacific Northwest say it would cost about $50 million to implement a system that would provide early warnings in Oregon and Washington. Joining Japan among countries with warning systems up and running are Mexico, Turkey, Taiwan and Romania. Steele believes it’s only a matter of time until the American public demands one on the West Coast.
“The world’s going down that road,” Steele says. “I don’t think the American public would accept that every other nation with a significant seismic hazard has a warning system and we have to wait until we start shaking.”
It will take many months before Japan can fully assess how people responded to the early warning. The system is designed to alert high-speed train operators so they can begin slowing down. It’s also supposed to warn crane operators in time so they can safely keep heavy construction material away from people. At the very least the warning should have allowed people to duck for cover in a doorway or under a desk.
Japan is well ahead of the U.S. and the rest of the world on earthquake preparedness. And this horrific earthquake will provide valuable lessons on how to be ready for the next big one and how to respond.