California Could Get an Earthquake Warning System By 2018

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In Southern California alone, sections of the San Andreas Fault are long overdue for a major earthquake and the USGS has said that there’s about an 85 percent chance that some major seismic action will hit the LA area by 2019. With a forecast like that, the whole state is in need of an earthquake warning system, something that already exists in Mexico, China, and Japan.

If so many other earthquake-prone places have this heads-up for ‘quakes, why doesn’t California? Even though there’s one being developed by the US Geological Survey, money to build the system has been hard to come by. Though the federal government has kicked in some cash, that money was hardly enough on its own. The big issue has been that “California’s policy is to not use money from the general fund for the early warning system,” an official with state’s the Department of Finance told the LA Times in February.

Previously, Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature had maintained that funding for the system should come from private and federal sources. (Brown signed a 2013 law that said an earthquake warning system should be created, but also said that the state’s general fund money couldn’t pay for it.)

But today, that all changed when Brown decided to ask state legislators via his revised budget to set aside $10 million toward setting up an earthquake warning system that could allow for initial alerts to start going out as soon as 2018, the LA Times reports. (Let’s hope nothing earthquakey happens in the next two years!)

“This is going to be a huge boost to the build-out of the system. The infusion of state funding will allow us to surge forward,” the US Geological Survey’s earthquake early warning coordinator tells the Times.

The warnings would be limited at first, but could potentially have significant life-saving impacts. In the beginning, the alerts would only go to schools, police and fire stations, and places like malls and theme parks where large groups of people gather.

Eventually, the early warnings of impending seismic events could be used to take actions to stem the devastation of a ‘quake by doing things like turning off gas moving through big pipelines to prevent fires or telling trains to slow down ahead of the shaking.

The alerts could also eventually be sent to people’s phones, though that method of delivery could take three to seven years to hammer out because “The U.S. cellphone network isn’t built for mass alerts where seconds matter.”

There’s still lots of work to be done before the network allowing for earthquake warnings to be effective is up and running. For one thing, the money the governor’s trying to allot won’t be enough to pay for the creation of about 640 more station throughout the state needed to take readings. (California needs 1,115 stations; it has about 470, and those are mostly in the areas around SF and LA.)

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