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On Archaic Scale, Quake Network Is an 8.0

July 08, 1996|LEE DYE

Hate to be the one to break the news, but if you build a better mousetrap, the world won't necessarily beat a path to your door.

Just ask the seismologists at the California Institute of Technology.

For several years, Caltech has been struggling to modernize its archaic seismic network so it could provide instantaneous information whenever an earthquake strikes Southern California. With the kind of cutting-edge technology now available, it might even be possible to provide enough warning to shut down some hazardous operations before the shock waves from a catastrophic temblor reached major population centers.

In earthquake-weary Southern California, you might expect government agencies and even private citizens to line up with checkbook in hand, eager to do anything possible to mitigate against earthquake disasters. But it hasn't worked out that way.

Many of the 250 seismographic stations in Caltech's network were installed in the 1950s, and they are such antiques that even moderate earthquakes push the readings off the scale. And the telephone network that links those stations to Caltech's computer is affected by background noise ranging from ham radio operators to lightning. So seismologists are never quite sure of the reliability of their information during the first critical minutes after an earthquake.

This situation could easily be corrected by replacing many of the seismographs and upgrading the entire system to digital technology, which is less vulnerable to electronic interference, according to Hiroo Kanamori, director of Caltech's seismology lab.

"For emergency use, we need to have very high reliability," Kanamori said. "We have to make judgments very quickly, so reliability is very important."


By quickly, Kanamori means quite literally within seconds of a major quake. That allows response teams to zero in--before the communications system shuts down--on the areas most likely to be devastated. As the system works today, if seismologists guess correctly, they can tell key agencies and companies linked to the Caltech computer within two to four minutes precisely where the quake was centered. But that's not soon enough. With modern technology, that warning could be issued immediately.

So Caltech teamed up with the U.S. Geological Survey and the California Division of Mines and Geology to upgrade Southern California's seismic network. The cost would run about $16 million to $17 million, Kanamori said, and Caltech applied last summer to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a $7-million grant.

But FEMA, the federal government's primary emergency response agency, turned down the application.

"That was extraordinarily shortsighted," Caltech Provost Steven Koonin said.

It turns out that FEMA's funds are restricted to projects that lead to improved building codes, and the seismological program went far beyond that. Better information about how the ground performs during an earthquake, for example, could lead to better building codes, and that part of the program is believed to lie within FEMA's guidelines. So Caltech scaled back its proposal and has appealed to FEMA for $4.6 million. That request is pending.

But an early-warning system, improved communications with critical agencies and digital links between the seismographs and Caltech fell outside FEMA's narrow definition of earthquake mitigation, so those parts of the program have been dropped--at least for now.


Lost, for the moment, is one program that holds considerable promise. Earthquake shock waves travel at the speed of sound. Digital communications travel at the speed of light. With a truly reliable monitoring system, it might someday be possible to warn Los Angeles 20 to 30 seconds before the shock waves from the Big One on the San Andreas Fault reached the city.

That could be enough time to stop elevators in high-rise buildings, shut down vulnerable industrial facilities or turn off the gas supply. Anything that can be automated could be plugged into the system, possibly even warnings to school children so that they could get under their desks before the ground began to move.

The proposed system would also provide a detailed record of all Southern California earthquakes, ranging from those too small to be felt to large quakes that many of us know all too well. That kind of information could enhance our understanding of earthquakes in general. It's also crucial to those trying to learn if certain small quakes might be precursors to larger quakes and offer some warning of what the future holds.

What makes this so maddening is that the technology is readily available to make all this possible. Unfortunately, it will probably take another big earthquake to make it come to pass.

Lee Dye can be reached via e-mail at

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