Rock & Gem

Early Warning of the Next “Big One” May Be Within Reach


Well over a century ago, in 1906, an earthquake devastated San Francisco. In a city of 400,000 at the time, over 225,000 were le• homeless and 700 to 3,000 were killed. ‰at catastroph­e led to a push for earth scientists to devise early warning systems that could save countless lives from the next “Big One.” Writing in the journal Science, Richard M. Allen (University of California, Berkeley) and Marc Stogaitis (Google, LLC), recently outlined the history of that effort and how, at long last, it may just be within reach.

Early efforts to forecast earthquake­s faced many hurdles. It was expensive to install seismomete­rs and impossible to transmit data in a timely way. In fact, aft•er the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Japan took practical steps toward a system that would alert geoscienti­sts. And it wasn’t until 1991 that a public alert system was installed around a subduction zone off the coast of Mexico.

Fast-forward to today. ‰e cost of installing formal scientific monitoring stations remains high but affordable, and now we have other alternativ­es, from monitoring “hiccups and blips” on existing ¦ber optic cables to smartphone apps. It’s estimated that, with the smartphone revolution, some 400 million people worldwide might receive notificati­ons of one sort or another that could provide the seconds needed to “duck-and-cover” as we say in California. It’s doubtful we’ll ever have a sure-¦re way to predict and broadcast earthquake­s in the time needed to save lives, but technology is rapidly helping to save at least one life at a time.

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