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The big one: Natural disasters in the SCV

Part two in a four-part series

Posted: September 2, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 2, 2013 2:00 a.m.
This file photo shows heavy damage in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. This file photo shows heavy damage in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
This file photo shows heavy damage in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

As devastating as it may be for local residents, every earthquake provides scientists with a wealth of new information about faults, ground movement and the reactions it causes.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake, for example, measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale, puzzled geologists for years because of its scattered pattern of damage, hitting particularly hard in Sherman Oaks and Santa Monica – relatively distant communities from the epicenter. Seismologists concluded an anomaly in the bedrock underlying the area was responsible for the unexpected pattern of damage.

But the question most residents of earthquake-prone areas would like answered is this: How do we know when the big one will hit?

“Research in the U.S. and most everywhere else is currently concentrated on early warning, which sends an alarm electronically from the first seismographic stations to detect a large earthquake, bearing the news that the earthquake has begun,” said Kate Hutton, the so-called earthquake lady of the California Institute of Technology, one of the nation’s premiere earthquake research centers.

“Depending on how far the epicenter is from the population centers, there can be seconds or multiple tens of seconds warning,” Hutton said.

One of her colleagues suggested a 45-second warning would be feasible from the time a quake is detected in Northern California to the time the message is received in Southern California.

That’s not a long time for a human to perceive, process and act. But such warning systems have been effective in halting machinery and potentially saving lives in other countries, the seismologists say.

“Japan has been using this system for many years to automatically slow down the bullet trains in the event of an earthquake, preventing derailment,” Hutton said. “There are many other automatic measures that can be taken.”
An early warning system could shut down dangerous machinery and return elevators to the nearest floor before a damaging temblor hits, supporters say.

“Operating tables in hospitals could be shut down automatically,” said Donna Nuzzi, Santa Clarita’s supervisor of emergency management. “A few seconds could make a difference in saving lives.”

The uncertain – but certainly high – cost of such a statewide system has given policymakers pause. But last week a bill by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, to establish a California early warning system passed the state Senate. It now heads to the Assembly for approval.

Padilla estimates such a system could give residents up to 60 seconds of warning. Most scientists say the warnings would be tens of seconds.

He estimates initial costs at up to $80 million but says federal funds should be available to offset some of those costs and private-public partnerships are a possibility.

Residents skeptical that tens of seconds’ warning would be enough time to, as Padilla says, “take cover, assist loved ones, pull to the side of the road or exit a building” are looking for quake forecasts, not early quake warnings, Hutton says.

But she doesn’t believe “A 60 percent chance of a 5.0 earthquake by Friday night with scattered aftershocks for two months” is anywhere in mankind’s near future.

Earthquake forecasting

In May the French news agency, Agence France-Presse, quoted Chinese officials who said they were using dogs to predict earthquakes.

According to AFP, the earthquake authority of Nanchang keeps dogs nearby as a way of receiving early warning about earthquakes, claiming dogs “act abnormally when an earthquake is coming,” sometimes up to 10 days in advance.

Bureau officials reportedly told AFP that chickens and ducks were also effective in predicting earthquakes.
“Unusual animal behavior — pets, farm animals, rats, fish, you name it — is a traditional Asian approach to predicting earthquakes,” Hutton said. “This especially applies to China and Japan.

“It got somewhat of a revival under (former People’s Republic of China leader) Chairman Mao, since it was sort of an anti-intellectual approach, but modern China has since gone with technology to address their earthquake problem.”

“Aside from the possibility that animals could detect foreshocks too small for people to feel, there is not really a plausible way for them to know something is up,” Hutton said. “Some people claim some sort of an electrostatic or magnetic buildup before a large earthquake. (But) again, no solid evidence.”

Hutton said her dog provided absolutely no warning in 1994 before the Northridge earthquake.

Quake detection

Real advances, however, are being made in early earthquake detection, according to Hutton’s fellow seismologists at Caltech.

Scientists have come up with an earthquake warning “app” for smartphone users.

The app is called QuakeUp, and it delivers three alerts if an earthquake occurs. The first alert lets users know of a “probable event” on its way, and a follow-up alert, a few seconds later, confirms the event itself.

A third alert is for authorities and rescue workers notified about clusters of the app’s users.

The app’s writers say it is also able to instantly reach contacts, including rescue workers, with a victim’s condition and location.

Signal City Editor Lila Littlejohn contributed to this report. Coming in Tuesday’s Signal: Facing the flames of disastrous wildfires.
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