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Threat to Earthquake Early Warning System


Last updated 7/18/2017 at 11:41am

A House of Representatives subcommittee is proposing that $10.2 million be allocated to an early warning system based at the Salton Sea. The new budget plan would maintain funding for a West Coast earthquake early warning system that President Donald Trump’s budget sought to slash.

A seismic early warning system for the West Coast has been under development for years by the U.S. Geological Survey, the nation’s lead earthquake monitoring agency. Trump’s budget would have ended the system before it launched. Officials were looking for “sensible and rational reductions and making hard choices to reach a balanced budget by 2027,” according to the administration’s proposal.

The administration’s budget was based on a decision to focus on the USGS’ core capabilities — services already offered, instead of something new, such as the earthquake early warning system.

But the proposal to end the funding has raised complaints as even just a few seconds of warning before a major earthquake can potentially save a lot of lives.

The system works on a simple principle: The shaking from an earthquake travels at the speed of sound through rock — slower than the speed of today’s communications systems. That means it would take more than a minute for, say, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that starts at the Salton Sea to shake up Los Angeles, 150 miles away, traveling on the state’s longest fault, the San Andreas.

Countries around the world have implemented earthquake early warning systems, such as Mexico and Japan. During the 2011 magnitude 9 Japan earthquake, viewers in Tokyo watching an NHK television channel that blared the early warning had more than a minute of notice before the strongest shaking arrived.

The system needs $38.3 million to be fully built out and $16.5 million a year to be operated and maintained across the West Coast, according to estimates. The federal government has already invested $23 million in the system; California lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown last year approved $10 million. Los Angeles has also directed money for the installation of seismic sensors in Southern California.

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