A computer can figure out the earthquake's size and location from the P-wave, and send out a warning signal before the damaging S-wave arrives. [Video: Earthquake Early Warning System Demonstration]
The signal arrives a few seconds to a minute before shaking, depending on the distance between the earthquake epicenter and the user's location, said Doug Given, the USGS early earthquake warning project coordinator. The primary users will be emergency personnel, hospitals, nuclear reactors, trains, factories and schools, Jones said. However, the signal will be publicly available, as in Japan, where programmers have created custom signal apps for phones, Hauksson said.
The prototype in place today works best for smaller earthquakes, and needs to be improved so it has fewer false alarms and can perform better during major quakes, such as those expected on the San Andreas Fault, Hauksson said. A recently published study suggests that California could experience a statewide earthquake, with the fault ripping apart for hundreds of miles.
"This is a starting point," Hauksson said.
The early warning system is a partnership between Caltech, the USGS and the University of California, Berkeley.
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