Earthquake Notification on the Internet

Warning: Light tremor coming to Los Angeles in approximately 10 seconds.

Someday soon in southern California, a message like this could appear on your computer screen.

Seismologists at the California Institute of Technology, the U.S. Geological Survey and the California Department of Conservation's Division of Mines and Geology are working on emergency response technology to alert people who happen to be online when an earthquake is coming.

The three organizations, collectively known as TriNet, are working to form the Southern California Seismic Network, which would produce data for emergency response and then transmit messages via e-mail to participating users.

TriNet aims to get 600 strong motion sensors working together with 150 broadband Internet sensors to give citizens a warning that an earthquake may be coming. The $21 million-plus project has been sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency with additional funding from the state of California and other technological partners such as GTE, Pacific Bell and Sun Microsystems Inc.

If TriNet is able to do what it proposes, southern California would become the most heavily monitored earthquake-prone area in the country, boasts the organization.

"[At TriNet] we're developing the capabilities to show how to predict the nature of strong shaking," said Thomas Heaton, a professor of seismology at CalTech who is involved with the TriNet program.

One Minute Warning— Or Less

As a first step, CalTech is now working on software that would broadcast online quake warnings to emergency workers and local authorities.

Jim Davis, chief of the California Division of Mines and Geology, says that the sensors will ultimately be able to relay computerized messages almost instantaneously once any type of shaking is felt.

"When an earthquake begins to occur, the fault begins to rupture," said Davis. "'We plan to monitor these areas with nearby sensors, and use the sensors' readings to estimate the source of the earthquake."

One major task of the project will be in ensuring the messages are sent quickly since earthquakes happen fast. For example, it would take about 75 seconds for an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.5 to travel 130 miles from its epicenter to the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

Seventy-five seconds (or less than that) isn't a lot of time, but the experts assert that if everyone's Internet connection is working, it could be enough warning to evacuate a school, or even shut down vulnerable segments of the city's power grid.

"In a typical situation, there's only about 10 seconds or so of notification to Internet users about the type of earthquake that is coming. The question that's still unanswered is if there's anything you can do with the seconds that is useful," Heaton said.

We Have the Technology…

David Simpson, president of Incorporation of Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) in Washington, D.C., says the technology for this kind of project is available, although, he cautions, the system could lead to some inconvenient false alarms. And, he adds, it would have to be directed at the right people in order to be effective.

"This program is aimed at situations that are heavily automated," he said. "On the time-scale that we are talking about — seconds, not minutes or hours — this information would be best suited for people who can control electricity, or elevators."