The Science of Sustainability

Reporter's Notes: Predicting the Next Big One

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Though I don't use it in the piece, the system of earthquake early warning we profiled – developed by UC Berkeley's Richard Allen, among others – has a name:ElarmS. One of my favorite parts of the ElarmS website is the page where visitors are invited to submit their own ideas for how the system might be used.

I mention this because it illustrates an interesting fact about earthquake prediction, which is that it's not the technology technology (i.e., how to predict an earthquake) that's still up for debate, it's what to do with the warning, once we have it.

If Allen is right, three years from now ElarmS will be up and running, supplying some – if not a whole lot – of warning before quakes hit. But whether the rest of us receive that warning is largely out of ElarmS 's hands. Will someone develop an iPhone app that'll announce the countdown in a GPS-like voice: 10, 9, 8? Will BART rig its system to ElarmS so that every train in the network starts slowing down, as soon as countdown begins? Will fire stations allow their doors to be automatically opened every time an alarm goes off? To borrow the USGS's David Oppenheimer's cringe-inducing example, will surgeons hear an alarm and lift their scalpels?

And what happens when false alarms – and they are inevitable – cause people to turn off their iPhone quake-warning apps, or complain about BART slowdowns? At a conference for environmental journalists last night, I chatted with two Mexicans about how their country has invested in an early-warning system. They rolled their eyes. "If it only worked!" Unfortunately, the price for working sometimes might be not working other times.

Here is a nice depiction of P-waves and S-waves, if you want to learn more about how prediction (and earthquakes) work.

And here's a link to the California Integrated Seismic Network, which includes the vault I visited in the radio piece (and featured in the slde show below).


Listen to Predicting the Next Big One radio report online.


37.8778 -122.243

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at Salon.com, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine.
  • http://www.seismicwarning.com Tony

    It's a shame Mr Allen doesn't spend as much on his research as he does on his marketing. Since 2001 Seismic Warning Systems has been doing EVERYTHING you talk about, INCLUDING zero false alarms. We are installed in fire stations up and down the state (especially the Coachella Valley, a number of schools in the Bay Area, and have been in talks with BART for over a year. 40 installations, zero false alarms. The Mexicans should be talking to Seismic Warning Systems.

    Tony