Seismologists push for better quake warning systems

Seismologists push for better quake warning systems »Play Video
In this April 4, 2011 photo released by U.S. Navy, Marines with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) pick up debris on Oshima Island, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan as part of ongoing disaster relief efforts.

SEATTLE -- There's a new push by seismologists on the West Coast to beef up early warning systems for earthquakes.

The biggest hurdle in getting it done: money.

Scientists say a speedier, more sophisticated system could alert us to an on-coming quake, possibly minutes before the strongest shaking hits. These warnings would pop up on our computers at work or home, maybe even on our smart phones, and tell us to take cover and brace ourselves.

According to experts, the terror that struck Japan is a shocking reminder of the vulnerabilities we face here along the West Coast. But Japan's preparations are much more advanced with high-tech systems that gives millions a heads-up that an earthquake is on the way.

"The countries that have early-warning systems today, largely built them after large, killer earthquakes. So it's our hope that it doesn't take a killer earthquake in the U.S. to realize this system," said Doug Given of U.S. Geological Survey.

The Northwest should worry. We sit on top of the Cascadia Subduction Zone with the Juan de Fuca plate plowing underneath the North American plate.

One day the energy building along that fault line will explode again, possibly with a massive quake measuring magnitude-9.0 or stronger.

Scientists say the first seismic waves generated by earthquakes are less destructive p-waves. These waves are said to bring in the first wave of energy, and cause very little shaking. But they're also known to contain information about the earthquakes.

The p-waves travel through the Earth's crust faster than s-waves, the ones that cause much greater damage. The biggest jolts come at the very end.

By detecting those initial p-waves with a dense network of sensors, warnings can be issued. It might not be a lot of time, maybe 20 seconds to a few minutes before the warnings sound.

"If you get the warning that the shaking's about to come and you're ready for it, you're going to be much better prepared to withstand what's going to come than instead of everything shaking and falling on top of you," said Richard Allen of the University of California, Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.

Earthquake scientists meeting at UC Berkeley say money is needed to update our nation's system, probably tens of millions of dollars.

"This system is cost-effective; it doesn't cost that much in the grand scheme of things," said Given. "And we ought to move forward with it. But we need the will on the part of the federal government to make the funding happen."

The Northwest has other fault lines. But the Cascadia Subduction Zone is getting plenty of attention, because it can produce huge earthquakes such as the one in Japan. There are seismic similarities. The last time it erupted was in the year 1700.