Earthquake Warning Systems: Preparing For The 'Big One' (VIDEO)

I spoke to Dr. Thomas Heaton to get a clearer picture of what early earthquake warning systems are and how they can save lives.

Earthquakes can happen just about anywhere at any time. The recent catastrophic quakes of Japan, Chile, and Mexico have us all thinking, "when will we be hit by the next big one?" Dr. Thomas Heaton directs the Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory at CalTech, where studies about earthquake warning systems are ongoing. I spoke with him to get a clearer picture of what early warning systems are and how they can save lives. According to Dr. Heaton, the next major earthquake in this country is just around the corner, and California is struggling to put an early warning system in place. Will you be prepared when the next "big one" strikes? Watch the video above and click below for a full transcript. And don't forget to weigh in by leaving a comment right here on HuffPost Science. Talk nerdy to me!


CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. Picture in your mind the scene from a major American earthquake. Chances are you're seeing the San Francisco Bay Bridge collapse in 1989. Or the devastation of the '94 Northridge earthquake which claimed 60 lives and left 20,000 people homeless. We've gone nearly twenty years without any catastrophic seismic activity, and that doesn't bode well.

TH: It's nice while it lasts, all this peace. But, sometimes we call it ominously quiet. We all know in the business that eventually we're gonna get hammered with something nasty.

CSM: That's Thomas Heaton, the director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory at CalTech. I asked him about early warning systems which aren't as easy to put together as you might think, especially in California, where the geology's complicated.

TH: In California, we're especially worried about the faults that run right next to or even sometimes through our cities. So, the earthquakes in some cases will happen very close to our cities. They could happen in a lot of different places. And because of that, we need a system that's very flexible.

CSM: An earthquake early warning system is not a predictive or forecasting tool. Instead, a network of seismographs placed directly on the Earth's surface would measure the waves created right at the beginning of an earthquake. Those waves could ideally trigger an automatic warning reaching city wide sirens and even individual cell phones.

TH: Sometimes we'll only have seconds to minutes between the warning and when the shaking will happen.

CSM: And the amount of time an early warning system offers is related to how far away you are from the epicenter of the quake and how fast those waves are moving. See, of the main two types of waves produced by an earthquake, P, or primary waves, travel quickly and have high velocity. Therefore, they're the first to be detected by seismographs. And apparently, sometimes pets.

TH: The suspicion was that the dog was reacting to what we call the P wave. It's mainly the S wave that you feel, and even human beings sometimes can perceive that P wave, and they don't quite know what they're listening to. And then the S wave comes and they know it's an earthquake.

CSM: And that's because S waves, or secondary waves, cause the damage. And the amount of time an earthquake early warning system gives us depends on the difference between when the P wave is measured and when the S wave is felt. And those precious seconds could save lives. Which begs the question, why isnt' there a functional early warning system in California?

TH: Well, we've got a--sort of a cobbled together warning system in California, but it's not really ready to be unleashed on US society. It's gonna take some real dedicated systems development to turn it into a working system.

CSM: And the western US is seismologically complex. There's a big difference between the common earthquakes we often feel in Southern California and the catastrophic events that gain national attention, like the great San Francisco quake of 1906 that claimed over 3,000 lives. And this has a lot to do with the way the earth's crust comes together to form a fault.

TH: Some kinds of faults are large, what we call megathrust subduction earthquakes. We've got one in Washington and Oregon. It has magnitude 9 earthquakes. Average time between them is 3 or 400 years. Certainly when that earthquake goes, it will be a true catastrophe. The good news is we'll probably be dead by the time it happens, but it's gonna happen to somebody. For us in California, we don't worry quite so much about that type of earthquake, but we are worried about the faults especially that are right beneath our cities. So, San Francisco basically was totally demolished by the 1906 earthquake. As far as I'm concerned, an earthquake like that could happen anytime in the bay area. It's basically a city waiting for some large catastrophe. For us in Southern California, we've got earthquake faults all over the place. Our San Andreas fault is down here, primed and ready to go. And, it's just a matter of time.

CSM: Are you prepared for the next big one? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me.

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