UC Berkeley receives grant for earthquake warning system

With the possibility of a large earthquake approaching, a grant for $2 million over the next three years will allow UC Berkeley researchers to work toward creating an early earthquake warning system for the public.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awarded $2 million each to UC Berkeley, California Institute of Technology and University of Washington to further develop a prototype called ShakeAlert that would notify residents of earthquakes moments before they strike.

The notification system — which would require an estimated $150 million over five years to launch along the West Coast — would work by analyzing the small shocks called P-waves that occur before earthquakes in order to notify the public of the magnitude of the impending earthquake, according to Richard Allen, principal investigator for the system and associate professor of earth and planetary sciences at UC Berkeley.

Over the course of three years, UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory researchers hope to collaborate with other universities and the U.S. Geological Survey to produce online and mobile warning applications.

A program that could notify people of an earthquake seconds or even minutes before a big shake would allow them to move to a safe zone and provide time to turn off hazardous machinery, Allen said.

If funding is found expeditiously, a public early earthquake warning system could come into fruition in about seven to eight years. However, the current prototype program still needs to be improved to effectively assess and notify the public of earthquakes over 7.0 magnitude, according to Allen.

While the survey provides shake information moments after an earthquake, there is currently no program to notify the public moments before a quake, according to Doug Given, a ShakeAlert coordinator and seismologist for the survey.

Given said countries, including Japan, Mexico and even Romania, already have early earthquake warning systems largely funded by their respective governments. These programs were sparked by large quakes that devastated citizens and infrastructure.

The 2008 Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast indicates that there is a 31 percent chance of a 6.7 magnitude or greater earthquake hitting the Hayward Fault line, and a two in three chance of one hitting the Bay Area, over the next 30 years. Given said hopefully  the United States will have implemented the system before a disastrous quake hits the West Coast.

Cyndi Atherton, the program director for the foundation, said the actual realization of the early earthquake warning system will have to rely more on private sectors for funding, especially in the current economic climate.

“When you look across the world and see how few nations have an earthquake warning system, we feel it is almost criminal the U.S. doesn’t have one,” Atherton said. “We are hoping to feed the fundamental research to gather future support from places besides the foundation.”