20- years ago the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake killed 57 people and injured 9,000 more.
It came as a complete surprise.
“The more we study earthquakes the more we realize how hard it is to predict them,” said Thomas Heaton, a seismology engineering professor at Cal Tech. ” Some of us believe they may be fundamentally unpredictable.”
Cal Tech, U.C. Berkley and the U.S. Geological survey are testing an earthquake early warning system. It relies on sensors placed around the state that can detect the tiniest vibrations, pinpointing when an earthquake hits.
‘The network sends us the information almost instantaneously,” said Heaton, “from that, we know where the earthquake was and how big it was.”
The goal of the system is to warn people seconds after an earthquake has started. But quakes travel fast, experts say up to 7,000 miles per hour.
‘You`ll only have seconds, possibly as much as a minute of warning, depending on how far away from the start earthquake you are,” said Heaton.
The warning could help people get to safety before the tremors reach them.
Heaton said the alert could help by slowing trains down before the quake hit,or to get workers away from high voltage equipment before the shaking got to them. He said these are just two examples, but there aree many more life saving situations.
Heaton is using a prototype of the alert system. He hopes one day enough funding will become available to improve the system, so all Californians would get a quake alert before the ground beneath them begins to shake. He said, “Certainly, I get a forewarning since the system is in my office, but you don’t because our system is not reliable enough yet to unleash on California.”