Expanding Earthquake Warning System

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EUGENE, Ore.–¬†An experimental warning system in a UC Berkeley lab beat the Napa Earthquake by 10 seconds Sunday. It sounded an alarm and counted down to the impending magnitude 6 temblor.

It’s the biggest test yet for a promising alert system that is already providing precious seconds of notice before quakes hit in Mexico and Japan, but it’s not yet available to the public in the US because it remains in budgetary limbo.

“Whether or not we get the system is solely a function of money. The technology exists, the know how exists,” said UO Professor Douglas Toomey.

The system has struggled to find the $80 million it needs to finance the project, but with the Napa earthquake damages estimated to surpass $1 billion, it just may get lawmakers taking action.

The system works because sensors near faults detect the first seismic waves emitted by a quake, and sends an alert before the secondary and more damaging waves hit. Those farther away from the epicenter receive a longer warning time. This makes the system a valuable tool for a city like Eugene, where the Cascadia Subduction Zone, capable of producing a magnitude 9 earthquake, is imminent.

“The bad news is it’s very large, but we’re in a slightly better situation in a sense that most of our metropolitan areas are distant from the Cascadia Subduction Zone,” added Toomey.

If a quake were to strike south of the zone and rupture north, Toomey says Eugene would get about a 2 minute warning, Portland would get about 3 minutes, and Seattle would get about 5 minutes. That’s crucial time for schools like Edison Elementary in Eugene, which can evacuate its 300 students in a minute and a half. Also, it gives time for power plants, hospitals, and bridges to shut down.

“Mainly we need to convince our state and federal legislators that it’s an important service to provide the community,” said Toomey.

Scientists say, if funding were made available to build the system today, it will be fully functional in 3 to 5 years.

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