Sounding the Alarm 

An early warning system would save thousands of lives when the next major earthquake hits. But will California find the money to implement it?

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To deal with this problem, the groups at Berkeley, Caltech, and USGS have already been in talks with telecommunications companies to discuss their potential roles in developing the apps and gadgets that would be most useful in relaying the message in the case of a quake. "People like Google, Verizon, and AT&T — they're the people who are obviously in a position to distribute it, and we see them as having a real business benefit in doing so," said Allen, stressing that if the consumer needs, the market will provide. "In the not-too-distant future, any device that you have that has communications will automatically provide earthquake early warning. And then we'll all be wondering why it was that it took us five years to go from demonstrating it was technically feasible to actually having a system in place."

For now, only one entity outside of the Berkeley, Caltech, and USGS research facilities is operating a full early warning system using their data: Bay Area Rapid Transit. Like Japan, where high-speed rail was the first early adopter of earthquake response technologies, last year BART announced an official partnership with Allen's group at Cal to have a fully operational system that will automatically slow trains from 70 to 26 miles per hour based on data fed to them from 200 Berkeley seismometers scattered along several Northern California faults. Now, if they receive warning that a quake is on its way, trains will be moving at a safe speed before the shaking even begins, helping prevent derailment.

But gadgets and apps will be of no use unless people know how to act within a twenty-second time window. One thing that almost every seismologist mentions as an additional hurdle in California is the lack of earthquake preparedness here compared to Japan, a country in which the threat of quakes is woven deep into the national psyche after so many natural disasters. It's certainly a hard-earned understanding; earthquake curriculum there begins in kindergarten and continues throughout a child's education, well into adulthood. And it goes further than just knowing how to prepare for a fast-approaching quake: "Tohoku DNA" was a phrase coined to describe the incredible resilience of a people able to band together for recovery after a catastrophe that destroyed so much.

"It's all well and good to say, 'We should do this today!'" said Strauss. "But it does no good to throw this information out to the mass public and not tell them what to do. You can't just say, 'Oh, an earthquake's coming,' and then watch people panic. So with the rollout of a public system, we also need a rollout of an education campaign so that people are confident, when they receive an earthquake alert, that they're going to get under a table, hold on, and stay safe."

Basically, once the system is in place, the hope is that California can create a culture and economy that, like Japan, is able to look the earthquake hazard straight in the eye. And when we do, we may find that the hazard we face is far more dangerous than scientists once imagined.


By all accounts, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake was not supposed to happen. "It was sort of an eye-opener, particularly for seismologists in Japan, because they simply did not think it was possible to have a magnitude nine there," said Allen. "I think that really shook the seismology community about being overly confident."

For decades, scientists thought that violent shaking from a major earthquake could not be felt strongly over great distances. At the same time, scientists also have long noted that the idea that a quake has a specific, fixed "epicenter" is just a myth. "If the earthquake is really small, you can basically think of it as emanating from a single point. But the rupture propagates, like pulling a zipper," explained Given of the USGS. "And that zipper can go on for a few meters, or it can go on for hundreds of kilometers."

Depending on the amount of energy released in the first lurching motion, the zipper can rip for a while. When that happens, there's an additive effect that leads to an even higher-magnitude quake that impacts a much larger area.

But scientists used to think that certain segments of a fault, dubbed "stable" zones, staved off huge earthquakes by preventing quake ruptures from propagating for too long. They were thought to act essentially like snags in the zipper, stopping quakes from getting too big.

But according to new research on Tohoku released earlier this year by Caltech and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, these "stable" zones, under certain circumstances, might actually make quakes larger than they would otherwise be and thus might actually be to blame for Tohoku's unprecedented size. The 2013 study argued that, at times, these zones can cause even more powerful slipping events — allowing the earthquake to propagate even further and leading to so-called "wall-to-wall" super quakes.

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