PD Editorial: California needs to catch up on quake warnings

An earthquake last weekend in Taiwan crumpled a 17-story apartment building like an accordion, killing at least 40 people and triggering a race against time to rescue any survivors hanging on in the rubble.

The next big quake could just as easily hit Los Angeles or San Francisco or Santa Rosa.

California is riddled with earthquake faults and, as one scientist put it, they’re “locked and loaded.” The only unknown is when one or more of them will go off.

The state has taken steps to prepare - enacting tough building codes for new construction and requiring seismic safety upgrades for older buildings as well as bridges, overpasses and other public infrastructure.

But there’s one valuable precaution California hasn’t fully embraced: an early-warning system.

With even 10 to 15 seconds of advance notice, automated sensors can halt elevators at the next floor, slow trains down, close emergency shut-off valves on pipelines, alert surgeons and open bay doors at fire stations so that emergency vehicles wouldn’t be trapped inside.

Mexico City installed an early warning system after a major quake in 1985. Parts of China and Turkey are covered by earthquake alert systems. Japan completed a nationwide system more than 20 years ago that can deliver earthquake alerts to a smartphone.

These early-warning systems work by detecting a quake as it begins and distributing immediate notifications. Because electronic communications travel faster than the damaging waves of an earthquake, the farther you are from the epicenter, the more notice you receive. In 2011, when a massive quake hit off Japan’s coast, Tokyo got 60 seconds advance notice.

Scientists at the California Institute of Technology and the U.S. Geological Survey are developing an early warning system for the West Coast called ShakeAlert that could already has shown promising results.

When a 6.0 magnitude earthquake hit near Napa in 2014, researchers at UC Berkeley got 10 seconds notice before feeling the quake. Last month, researchers in Pasadena got 30 seconds advance notice of a 4.4 magnitude quake centered 80 miles away in Riverside County.

But the ShakeAlert system is only a prototype, with sensors concentrated around Los Angeles and San Francisco, leaving large blind spots throughout the state.

A fully effective regional network would require about 1,000 more sensors strategically located in Oregon, Washington and California, according to scientists involved in the project. Completing a West Coast regional system would cost about $38 million, with ongoing operating costs of about $16 million a year. California’s share would be about $12 million a year.

Congress has committed $16 million, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation announced $3.6 million in grant funding at a White House summit this month on earthquake early warning systems. The federal government wants California to invest in the ShakeAlert system, but a state law passed in 2013 prohibits the use of general fund money for the project.

That was a short-sighted decision, but it can be reversed. A bill pending in Sacramento would commit $23 million from the state’s budget surplus to the early warning system, and the authors have pledged to continue seeking private money to help pay operating costs.

California accounts for nearly two-thirds of annual earthquake losses in the United States. An early warning system won’t prevent any quakes, but it could save lives. That’s worth a public investment.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette