Earthquake early warning system still years away

What could you do with 15 seconds warning of a big earthquake? How about a minute?

You could find a doorway, get away from glass windows, or pull a car off a road. Hospitals could switch to generators, elevators could stop and open at the nearest floor, and factories could shut down dangerous equipment.

A formalized early warning system that could give the Bay Area up to one minute of warning in a large earthquake is rumbling ever closer, yet it remains five to eight years away from reality.

A grant announced this week from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will provide $2 million each to UC Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology and the University of Washington to help them integrate their disparate “shoestring” prototypes into a robust demonstration of a full-scale earthquake early warning system. If successful, another $150 million will be needed to build out the final system for the entire West Coast.

Currently, a network of sensors is in place in California, Oregon and Washington, but more processing power and faster communications are needed to provide real-time earthquake detection results. Barring funding delays, a production system would come online by the end of this decade.

If you’ve been through a big enough earthquake, you may have heard it coming before it hit. In 1989, someone I know (ok, me) heard the rolling boom of the Loma Prieta quake at San Francisco State for at least ten seconds before pure bedlam broke loose.

Earthquake warning systems, like the one in Japan, work the same way, “listening” for p-waves, or primary waves, that precede the destructive shock of the secondary s-waves. The further away you are from the epicenter, the longer warning you’ll receive.

Google’s tech-driven charity, Google.org, is also assisting with development of the system, along with the Deutsche Telekom Innovation Center. The hope is that these tech and communication giants can help design a system that can give all of us at least a few seconds to prepare for the shaking.

Of course, the world might not need an expensive network of sensors and dedicated equipment. In the Great Eastern Seaboard Earthquake of 2011, New Yorkers and other urbanites received up to 30 seconds of advance notice via Twitter and SMS. The East coast is much more densely populated, though, and large portions of the San Andreas Fault are either offshore or remote and unpopulated.