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Mexico quake: California lacks early warning system

March 21, 2012 |  3:26 pm

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Japan has one. So do Mexico, Taiwan, Turkey and Romania.

But California has struggled to develop and deploy an earthquake warning system that would give cities seconds of crucial time to prepare for the impact of a massive earthquake.

California is spending only a fraction of what Japan and Mexico devoted to the projects, and scientists said the progress is so slow that they cannot say when the state might complete its own system.

Until recently, researchers were spending only about $400,000 a year developing the technology. This year, they received a $6-million grant for work on a new prototype. But experts said it would cost approximately $150 million to build and $5 million a year to operate a system covering California and other quake-prone states along the Pacific.

PHOTOS: Earthquake hits Mexico

Japan’s system cost $1 billion to build and includes 1,000 GPS sensors used to detect and monitor seismic waves.

One reason for the lack of interest, some experts say, is that unlike Mexico, Japan and the other countries with early warning systems, California has not experienced a truly catastrophic earthquake in more than a century.

“I think it’ll happen. The question is whether we get it sooner than before we have a tragic earthquake or whether we have it after a tragic earthquake,” said Thomas Heaton, a professor of engineering seismology at Caltech. “Unfortunately in the earthquake business, often things don’t happen until we have a tragedy.”

Officials in California have been working on a system for about five years. And as personal technology continues to evolve, their current warning plan is geared heavily toward social media and mobile communications.

Alerts of coming quake waves in California could be sent via Twitter and other forms of social media, with scientists hoping to get word out as broadly as possible. Alerts would also go out on TV and radio. With the warning, scientists hope emergency crews would have time to open fire station doors, protect nuclear power plants, slow down trains and take other measures before the quake was felt.

Researchers have also launched a campaign for the public to attach accelerometers to their home computers and smartphones that could transmit earthquake shaking to authorities in real time. They believe this data, combined with information gleaned from underground sensors placed around the region, could help with the early warning system.

Waves from a quake move quickly through the ground, but electronic signals are far faster, allowing a warning to outrun the shaking.

Officials said the length of the warning depends on the epicenter of the quake. A temblor along the San Andreas fault around the Salton Sea, for example, could give up a full minute of warning before shaking occurred in Los Angeles, officials said.

When Japan was rocked by a 9.0 earthquake last year, the warning system sent an alert to Tokyo before the seismic waves of the quake reached the city. The same thing happened in Mexico City on Tuesday after a 7.4 quake reported near Acapulco.


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--Hector Becerra, Sam Allen in Los Angeles and Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City

Photo: People make calls in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood after a strong quake hit Tuesday. Credit: Alfredo Estrella / AFP/Getty Images