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Federal budget may kill California’s earthquake early warning system

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The proposed budget eliminates funding for the crucial system

Collapsed freeway
An earthquake early warning system would give drivers time to move off dangerous overpasses.
U.S. Geological Survey

Among the many vital infrastructure improvements that a new proposed federal budget ignores is one that could mean the difference between life or death for residents up and down the West Coast: A revised budget would eliminate the nearly $10 million per year which had, until recently, been allocated for the development of an earthquake early warning system.

Seismologists have been working for over a decade on an earthquake early warning system that could be deployed across the Western U.S. In fact, a prototype also being tested as an app for smartphones has been developed right here in Southern California by scientists at Caltech and USGS, in partnership with other institutions.

But an estimated $38 million is still needed to install the network of sensors at a density needed to properly report quakes and get the system up and running.

Early warning systems that have become widely adopted in countries like Japan and Mexico have been credited with not only saving lives but saving cities money as officials have time to shut down transit systems, factories, and power plants, avoiding crucial damage. In San Francisco, for example, the BART rail system already uses the early warning data to stop or slow trains when a tremor is reported, averting derailments.

An early warning system could give Angelenos up to 30 seconds notice to prepare for a large earthquake

In 2016, Congress allocated $10 million for the early warning system, with some additional funds coming from private donors like Intel. Then the state of California kicked in an additional $10 million that year to help speed the early warning system towards reality, announcing that it could be ready as soon as 2018.

But without federal dollars it will be difficult to keep the research momentum going on the project, says Dr. Lucy Jones, the former city seismologist for Los Angeles and founder of the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society. “Eliminating the $10 million per year that the government has been spending would stop the program and waste the $23 million that has already been invested,” she says. “The talented scientists and technicians that are working on the project now will go to other jobs, so their experience and expertise would be lost.”

Caltech and USGS are working on a smartphone app for the early warning system.
Art Center College of Design and Foxio

Mayor Eric Garcetti also chimed in about the importance of the early warning system for Los Angeles, which he says has already invested millions in the project. “The President’s proposal to eliminate funding for the West Coast’s earthquake early warning system is an abandonment of his duty to protect Americans, and I trust that our representatives in Congress will have the wisdom to reject a plan that could cost lives,” he said in a statement.

It’s true that Congress still has to approve the budget, but it isn’t necessarily only California representatives that should be advocating for better earthquake protection. A 2015 USGS survey showed that 143 million Americans—about half the country—live in places where they could experience potentially damaging earthquakes. That’s a number that’s growing due to population shifting towards these areas.

And although the Pacific Rim region of the country is most at risk for a large earthquake, it’s not just a West Coast thing anymore. With tremors due to fracking also on the rise in places like Oklahoma, which are not located in traditionally seismic zones, the early warning system could be potentially used in more places across the country.