California earthquake early-warning system awaits Brown’s approval

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As Californians await the next big earthquake, they soon may breathe a sigh of relief, knowing they can receive a warning before the earthquake strikes.

A bill that would implement a statewide earthquake early-warning system is currently awaiting approval from Gov. Jerry Brown. Earthquake Early Warning, which was developed in part by UC Berkeley researchers, would become the first public earthquake early-warning system in the United States.

UC Berkeley researchers developed the system in collaboration with colleagues from California Institute of Technology, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Washington and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

“I think this is a much needed investment to protect the lives of Californians,” said Igor Tregub, who serves on the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission. “The time could not come soon enough.”

Four hundred seismometers and other sensors are located around California’s fault lines to detect the strength of an impending earthquake as well as when its first damaging seismic waves will strike. The system awaiting Brown’s approval can notify people 60 seconds before shaking starts.

Brown has until Oct. 13 to sign the bill.

The system works by detecting P-waves and estimating the magnitude, intensity and location of an earthquake before the S-wave, which causes the ground to shake, strikes.

Because it detects the less destructive P-waves before the shaking begins, the system has time to warn those in the region.

Jennifer Strauss, external relations officer for the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, said researchers at the lab were responsible for creating the ElarmS algorithm, which detects the P-waves and stands for Earthquake Alarms Systems.

Although the idea for an earthquake-warning system was conceived in 2002, the project’s first phase did not begin until four years later. State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, heard about the project and introduced legislation to implement the system throughout California in late January.

“(We want to) develop more ways to alert the public, whether it’s to do Amber Alerts, signs on the freeways or apps on our smartphones,” Padilla said in a recorded audio release.

The system is estimated to cost $80 million for the first five years. This includes the cost of buying and installing more sensors, as well as other operation costs.

UC Berkeley runs part of the seismic network in Northern California and maintains the systems and the data received from those sensors, Strauss said.

Those who see the alert will receive a countdown to an earthquake’s first shake. They also will be informed whether they will be able to feel the earthquake, given their current location. The time of the warning depends on where the receiver of the alert is standing relative to the fault.

“Given the next big one is predicted to strike around Berkeley in the next 30 years, I certainly appreciate the state providing more tools to minimize the damage and the potential loss of life from such an event,” Tregub said.

Contact Lydia Tuan at [email protected]