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The Chicken Little app: An earthquake! An earthquake!

January 29, 2013|By Paul Whitefield
  • A computer-generated graphic is displayed at a news conference in Pasadena to announce legislation to create an earthquake early warning system for California. The graphic shows the progression of earthquake shock waves along the San Andreas Fault, from the Salton Sea to downtown Los Angeles.
A computer-generated graphic is displayed at a news conference in Pasadena… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

In the movie “Galaxy Quest” (a cult classic comedy; I give it 3 stars and a big thumbs-up), the hero gains access to a device that allows him to reverse time. The catch? It’s for just 13 seconds.

What good would it do to be able to go back in time just 13 seconds, you -- and the “Galaxy Quest” hero -- ask?

Well, see the movie and find out. (No spoiler alert needed.)

Then perhaps you can also explain to me why we shouldn’t get behind the plan to build an early warning system for earthquakes, which a group of California's top geophysicists and seismologists announced Monday.

Because a few seconds can mean a lot. I mean, suppose Chicken Little was right -- wouldn't you want to know?

OK, naysayers, true -- this system will cost money: an estimated $80 million. And no, it doesn’t actually predict an earthquake, which is the Holy Grail of seismology.

So what would it do? As my colleagues Rong-Gong Lin II and Rosanna Xia wrote:

If a temblor erupted near the Salton Sea, for instance, underground sensors along the San Andreas would send off an alert to points north and west, covering population centers in Los Angeles and San Diego. Experts said this would give time to shut off utilities, prepare emergency response personnel and slow trains.

Japan, of course, already has such a system. (So does Mexico, Taiwan, Turkey and -- wait for it -- Romania. Huh? You're telling me we're behind Romania?). And here is how Japan’s worked in a real-world disaster:

In the devastating 2011 Japan earthquake, a sensor embedded in the ground detected the first signs of movement and immediately sent out an alert at the speed of light. Within seconds, text messages warning of impending shaking went out to roughly 50 million people.

Many people in Tokyo, 200 miles away from the epicenter, knew the quake was coming before they felt the shaking about 30 seconds later. Trains were able to slow down or stop, and not a single car derailed.

Having experienced my share of quakes (the 1987 Whittier Narrows temblor was my first “big” shaker, knocking down bricks in my Pasadena home’s chimney and scaring the daylights out of my wife, a SoCal native no less), I say “yes” to getting any kind of warning that a quake is coming.

In fact, one of the scariest aspects of an earthquake is precisely that: You don’t know when it’s coming. One minute you’re watching TV, the next, you’re watching your TV whiz by your head and hit the wall across the room (don’t laugh; this happened to some friends during the 1994 Northridge shaker).

So, having a precious few seconds to brace yourself, or hug the wife and/or kids and/or dog and/or cat -- or perhaps to just go shut off the gas or get out from under that 1,000 pound chandelier or, heck, I don't know, put on some clothes -- certainly couldn’t hurt.

The problem right now isn’t the technology; it’s the cash. California is just digging out from a budget crisis, and money for even worthy causes is still hard to come by. But c'mon, we spend -- or waste -- a lot more money than this all the time. Surely there is $80 million in between the Legislature's couch cushions.

What are the chances this thing gets up and running? Who knows. But the chances are 100% that California is going to have more earthquakes. 

And as the next one is about to hit my little patch of heaven, I’d sure like to have a beeping cellphone tell me that.   

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