A Call to Fund Earthquake Warning Technology
Living in Southern California has many constants – we have sun, we have surf … and we have earthquakes. We’ve been taught by public service announcements many times over to drop and cover ourselves as the shaking begins. Our schools run mandatory drills to instruct our students how to best protect themselves.
Unlike many other natural disasters, earthquakes strike in an instant and with no warning – giving us no time to prepare or even move to a safe place. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
When the next big earthquake will hit is still unknown, but we are certain it will come, and the only question is whether we will be prepared. Although we cannot predict an earthquake’s arrival, there is proven technology developed by CalTech along with the U.S. Geological Survey and other west coast universities that can give us up to a minute of warning before the shaking reaches you. It may not seem like much time, but it is enough to save lives and property – our transit systems, including subways and trains can be slowed or stopped, surgeries can be paused, and elevators can stop at the nearest floor to let people out.
Earthquake early warning systems are already in place and working well in countries like Japan and Mexico. The system being tested now along the west coast has proven a success as well, warning test users of imminent shaking.
This crucial technology has proven itself extremely valuable in other countries, as well as in the beta version in California. Unfortunately, the system’s delayed implementation is not a result of debate on the science or utility of an earthquake early warning system, but of lack of funding for the program.
For years, I have advocated for federal funds to help build and maintain an early warning system on the west coast, and in 2014 we were able to secure these funds for the first time. Last year, Congress increased its appropriation for the system to $8.2 million. This is exciting progress, and I am pleased that support for this important technology has been completely bipartisan.
This month, the White House brought together seismologists, public officials and private entities in an effort to call attention to the importance of developing the early wanting system. In his budget request for the coming fiscal year, the President asked for more funding than ever before to build out this system on the west coast. The federal government cannot – and should not – fund the system entirely on its own. It will need partners on the state and local levels and among private industry. Happily, that support is beginning to materialize.
Private sector corporations have seen the potential of this program and have recently pledged to help fund the building and maintenance of the system. Nonprofits like the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation have also provided millions in seed money.
Up until now, state governments along the west coast have applauded earthquake early warning systems, but had yet to commit significant funds to the effort. That is now changing. This month, leaders in the California State legislature, State Senator Jerry Hill, Assemblymember Adam Gray and Senator Robert Hertzberg, unveiled a bill to provide $23.1 million in vital funding for an early warning system. This legislation will appropriate funds to install the needed seismic sensors, to implement the telecommunications technology, and to get the system up and running.
If this funding comes through, we could have an early warning system deployed within a couple of years. Imagine getting a text message on your phone, trains being programmed to slow automatically when they receive a signal, or hospitals getting an emergency alert that an earthquake is coming. The applications are unlimited and the capacity to save lives and property is substantial. Best of all, with this new level of commitment, we just might build it in time.