Where is California’s earthquake early warning system?

In the popular imagination of the rest of the country, California is blue skies, toasty temperatures, palm trees, the Golden Gate Bridge, Hollywood, and earthquakes. While the state hasn’t actually had a serious quake in a while, we have enough minor ones to hit the news occasionally, and big events like Northridge stuck stayed in the news cycle for weeks thanks to the sheer scope of damage. For Californians, low-level earthquakes can feel humdrum — many of us scarcely react to minor quakes (and on more than one occasion I’ve attributed a quake to a heavy truck). But any given quake can get ugly, which is why many people have advocated, reasonably, for an early warning system to alert citizens to impending large geological events — and why the government is actually testing one, ShakeAlert.

The reason there’s been such a holdup on the technology is complicated and labyrinthine, and a reminder of how bizarrely tangled politics can get in the US. For starters, it’s worth noting that multiple countries, including Japan and Mexico, use earthquake warning systems, and they’re particularly critical in Japan, which is highly seismically active. These systems give seconds of warning, which doesn’t sound like much, but can be enough to seek shelter and increase the chances of surviving a significant earthquake. They’re also critical for government function and infrastructure, which is something I’ll be returning to in a moment, so put in a pin in it, if you will.

These systems rely on several things. One, of course, is sufficient government funding — and in a state with a massive deficit that’s floundering for direction, it’s tough to divert funds. Similarly, the government is investing limited USGS funds across the entire country, not just California. Additionally, they rely on the types of quakes common in a given region. For people who didn’t grow up in earthquake-prone areas of the country, there’s often an assumption that all earthquakes are the same: Earth moves, things shake, boom.

That’s actually not the case, though. There are a number of different types of faults and they behave in unique ways. The positioning of faults, tectonic plates, and geographical features has a huge difference on ensuing earthquakes. Even though both California and Japan are at high risk of quakes, for example, they behave very differently, causing different kinds of damage (in just one instance, Japan is prone to tsunamis, while California is not — except in the case of seismic events so extreme that they propagate energy for thousands of miles, as for example happens sometimes with major quakes in Japan). California’s geological makeup is such that it’s harder to issue warnings. Why? Because Japan relies on technologies that respond to events offshore, where numerous earthquakes are centered, providing a longer lead time on warnings, while many earthquakes in California are centered onshore. Faults also interact with each other, turning what could be a relatively small quake into a much bigger one as other faults join the party.

At best, estimates suggest that earthquake warning technology in California could provide a few seconds of lead time, but not much more. By the time humans process that information, a quake may already be in progress. It’s a better warning than an abrupt shake, but not by much. For California, though, the real benefit of early warning systems comes for infrastructure, as the state has two dense, key economic hubs: Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Both lie along major faults and would incur billions of dollars worth of damage in a megaquake — something that could potentially jostle the entire state, bringing infrastructure in both cities to its knees.

Early warning systems can interact directly with computer controlled systems, creating an opportunity to initiate shutdowns before expensive and fragile systems are damaged. That includes water systems, gas mains, the electrical grids, hospital equipment, servers, and more. An interruption in service to preserve such systems is definitely preferable to incurring billions of dollars of damage that will need to be addressed to get the state running again — and in the case of things like utility service, there’s an imperative to restore services quickly to prevent significant crises, like the inability to provide a range of hospital services.

Take a hospital, which is a classic example of an environment that could experience severe disruption in an earthquake. An early warning system could kick on generators to maintain power with a seamless transition, while taking non-critical electrical systems offline and issuing warnings to caregivers involved in procedures like surgery. The structure can still experience potentially substantial damage, especially if it hasn’t been adequately retrofitted, but the chance of survival would be radically increased, as would continuity of care. Meanwhile, the proactive shutdown of the electrical grid outside the hospital will make it easier to inspect miles of utility lines and restore service quickly, allowing the hospital to return to fully operational status quickly, which is good, because it will likely be facing an influx of earthquake victims in need of urgent emergency care.

Such systems, though, should be viewed with a sense of caution. They’re only as good as their maintenance, and need routine testing, maintenance, and oversight to confirm that they are working properly and are capable of actually kicking in when an emergency happens. That means funding to keep early warning systems and their adjunct control functions operational. Moreover, even with such systems, people in key positions still need to know how to quickly respond in emergencies to protect infrastructure and rapidly respond after the quake to assess damage and triage repairs. Relying solely on a technology that could be faulty (ha) in an unpredictable geological landscape could create a disaster.

Image: Japan Earthquake, P K, Flickr