California’s Early Warning System Has First Small Success

Just before the ground beneath Los Angeles shook from a 4.4 earthquake, California’s early warning system worked as seismologists thought it would, but residents failed to get the warning since the state has yet to identify a source of funding to finish and maintain the system.

Such a system is crucial, as the souther segment of the San Andreas fault passes a mere 35 miles from Los Angeles, resulting in about 10,000 Californian earthquakes each year. This system could allow downtown L.A. to have 40 or 50 seconds of warning that a big quake was coming, which gives elevators enough time to stop at the next floor, for teachers to get students to a secure place, for high speed trains to avoid derailment, and for the general population to quickly prepare.

According to CalTech seismologist Lucy Jones, earthquakes travel at the speed of sound, but the early warning system’s sensors at the epicenter of the quake, which initially detect the shaking, send messages at the speed of light to warn residents farther away that the earthquake is coming.

“We need to come up with the annual expenses of maintaining the stations, running the software, and getting the telemetry,” said Jones. “And, you know a big earthquake tomorrow, the funding might show up the next day,”

The system’s been in development for the past 15 years, and got the big boost last Spring, when about $5 million had been given to earthquake scientists to help expedite the process.

This was a far cry from the estimated $80 million necessary to properly maintain and operate such a system. The money allowed scientists to buy 100 new sensor stations that’ll get deployed throughout the region to complete the seismic sensor network. However, without the total amount of funding, officials said it’s like buying a car, but not having enough money to afford gas.

However, the success on Monday has buoyed many professionals’ hopes.

“It’s very exciting to be in a place where we can access this kind of information,” said the director of CalTech’s earthquake lab, Thomas Heaton. “It’s kind of astonishing.”

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