SCIENCE
02/02/2016 12:47 pm ET | Updated Feb 03, 2016

Scientists Are Developing A Way To Warn You An Earthquake Is Starting

An extensive West Coast system could help save lots of lives.

David McNew via Getty Images
A research geophysicist with the United States Geological Survey looks at a series of images that illustrate the seismic waves of an earthquake. The understanding of seismic waves is key for building an earthquake early warning system.

One of the most frightening things about earthquakes is that we never know when the next big one is going to hit.

Largely because of this uncertainly, an average of 10,000 people die in earthquakes each year. However, a team of scientists from the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Oregon, and the University of Washington hopes to decrease that number significantly.

They have developed a high-tech prototype of an earthquake early-warning system. It uses seismic data to detect the beginning of an earthquake and then sends an alert seconds before devastating ground-shaking begins, said Dr. Richard Allen, director of the Seismological Laboratory at UC Berkeley and member of the research team.

"The amount of warning time you get depends on where you are located compared to where the epicenter of the earthquake is," he told The Huffington Post. "We would want to push the warning out on your cell phone, your computer, over TV and radio and even push it through your home security system. … We would push it out over as many channels as possible."

A warning of just a few seconds is still enough time for engineers to halt trains, doctors to pause surgeries, and people to find cover in their homes or other buildings.

The researchers were able to move the early-warning system from demonstration phase to prototype thanks to a $6 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in 2011. More funding is now needed to build out the warning system for public use, Allen said.

A reliable West Coast early-warning system could cost roughly $38 million to build and $16 million per year to maintain and run, according to a press release from the University of Washington.

The system is expected to be the main topic of focus during an "Earthquake Resilience Summit" hosted by the White House on Tuesday, which you can watch here: 

The idea behind earthquake early-warning systems isn't new. In 1868, medical doctor J.D. Cooper proposed using seismic waves -- energy waves produced by tremors -- to give advanced warning that a quake was underway in San Francisco. Ever since, scientists have looked to seismic waves as the key to developing an early-warning system.

"It is really urgent. We know there is a 99.7 percent chance of a damaging earthquake in California," Allen said.

The new prototype system involves a network of underground seismometers, which are instruments that can measure the waves of energy coming from an earthquake, stationed across the West Coast.

The seismometers take the data about the waves and send it at the speed of light to a computer system. If the seismic waves indicate the onset of an earthquake, the computer system determines the earthquake's location and then sends out an alert saying how much time remains before potentially damaging shaking will occur at a given location.

Other countries, including Japan and Mexico, are already using similar technology to send early earthquake alerts about 10 to 15 seconds before shaking can be felt, Allen said.

The researchers noted, however, that such systems do not predict where or when earthquakes occur. Rather, they simply warn when the strongest ground-shaking may happen during a strong tremor.

"We cannot predict earthquakes and we won’t be able to predict earthquakes in the future. It is a very chaotic process," Allen said. "Earthquake early warning, on the other hand, allows us to predict the beginnings of an earthquake."

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