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Seismologists Debate Effectiveness Of Quake Warning System

Byron Tseng |
May 11, 2013 | 5:08 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

A little blue box and a little orange box lie in a basement among a smorgasbord of wires.

To an untrained eye it is insignificant, yet these represent prototypes of the Earthquake Early Warning System that could save many lives in California. This project is about to experience a major expansion.

On April 19, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones announced $5 million dollars in funds for the Earthquake Early Warning System in Southern California. The new system, which can go online in two years depending on further funding, will give Southern Californians a 30-second warning before an earthquake strikes.

The warning system will work through sensor stations all over the Southland picking up P-waves from earthquakes. P-waves -- or primary waves -- travel first and are twice as fast as S-waves (secondary waves), which are the waves that cause damage. The funding will go toward adding 100 additional sensor stations to the 300 currently in place. Together, these stations will pick up P-waves and emit this information at the speed of light to the public.

Although 30 seconds may not sound like much, scientists involved with the project have found the difference that this limited amount of time can make. Villaraigosa applauded how the same system in Japan allowed doctors to stop in the middle of surgeries, utilities and factories to shut down and residents to move away from danger and turn their stoves off.

Already, the early warning system has been tested on Bay Area Rapid Transit trains to prevent derailment, or ensure that all elevators are open at the nearest floor during an earthquake.


Jones also mentioned how much of the funding will be going into a partnership with a specialist in communications and design.

"They will help create a system that best communicates to the public specific things they need to get ready for," Jones said. "On the public side we have phone apps, including a prototype of the android phone. This app which was the most popular download in Japan following the 2011 earthquake, will give you an option of setting the earthquake intensity threshold. Hence, if you set the threshold at a magnitude 5, the phone will only alarm when a magnitude 5 or above earthquake is imminent."

One partner of the Earthquake Early Warning system is the Southern California Earthquake Center, which also hosts The Great Shakeout, an annual event geared toward earthquake preparedness. As Mark Benthien at SCEC says, "There is not much you can do with the 30 seconds warning, except to drop, cover and hold on. Which is what the Great Shakeout gets people prepared with."

Earthquake Prediction: Astrology And Animal Behavior

However, some scientists believe that the 30-second warning is not enough, and have turned to earthquake prediction as a better means to warn people.

Proponents of earthquake predictions have been met with hostility. Jim Berkland, a retired geologist who is the subject of the book, "The Man Who Predicts Earthquakes," said the position of the moon and tidal forces, as well as animal behavior, can be used to predict earthquakes. His famous prediction of the Bay Area quake in 1989 was ostracized by the seismologist community.

Berkland was handed a three-month suspension for predicting the quake and unnecessarily alarming the public, although he had correctly predicted it.

Berkland claimed the USGS was trying to have him fired, only to stop when they could not find justification for it. Although he promised not to make any more predictions, Berkland started an earthquake prediction newsletter called Syzygy.

Berkland first became intrigued with predicting earthquakes in 1974 while he was researching earthquakes that occurred during a full moon. Later, he identified that the quakes in Long Beach, Calif. (1933), Hebgen Lake, Mont. (1959), San Fernando, Calif. (1971), Tabas, Iran (1978) and Parkfield, Calif. (2004) all occurred when the sun, earth and moon are aligned to an extent that tidal forces are changed. Berkland said a mathematician told him the odds of these quakes occurring with the sun, earth and moon in synergy were 1 in 59,000.

Berkland also studied animal behavior as a precursor to earthquakes and has documented missing pet advertisements in newspapers since 1976.

"Not all cats are responsive to quakes, but if enough of them are, you need to pay attention," Berkland said. "Before the 1989 World Series quake, instead of three missing cats ads, there were 27 in the San Jose Mercury News. And missing dogs went from 20 to 58. That's a huge jump."

Berkland has attributed the strange behavior of animals during an earthquake to the mineral magnetite that occurs naturally in animals. This discovery  was announced in 1980 and helped Berkland in his research.

"When you have magnetic material and move it around a magnetic field, you generate little electrical impulses," Berkland said. "That is the mechanism by which animals and even some humans become aware of the changing environments through severe headaches that cause them to flee the area near the imminent earthquake epicenter."

Berkland has been in contact with 24 women and one man who all reported having severe headaches three days before an earthquake.

"It is an overpowering headache that Advil and aspirin have no effect on," Berkland said. "The pain ends after an earthquake. But from past experiences they are able to warn their family before quakes." Berkland noted how none of the two dozen people have gone public with this condition since they did not want to be considered odd.

The convergence of this data occurred on October 1989 when juvenile Beaked whales beached themselves in the Bay Area, as well as a rare pygmy sperm whale that washed up on the beaches of Santa Cruz within five miles of the epicenter of the oncoming quake. Berkland also noted record level tides and missing pets.

Berkland told the Gilroy Dispatch that there would be an earthquake between October 14-21 (the days around the time of the full moon) of the magnitude 6.9 to 7.1 based on his research. The quake struck on October 17.

Scientists behind the Earthquake Early Warning System gave a sigh at the mention of Berkland's name.

"Oh, well he has convinced himself that it's true," said Jones, who said the USGS has tried to find evidence of earthquake prediction. "I've spent my career trying to find it. I got my PhD at MIT trying to find it. The most reliable predictor are foreshocks. Even then, they don't appear enough to be reliable."

Jones said she thinks that people want to believe in earthquake precursors to make themselves feel more in control. Nevertheless, Jones has not seen statistics with the moon, tides or animals that have stood a scientific test.

"I have done a lot of work on his tests, but we've never found anything that is better than random," she said.

Indeed, Berkland has admitted that even he gets his predictions wrong one out of four times. The most recent miscalculation came in 2011 when he inaccurately predicted a major earthquake to hit the west coast of North America.

Earthquake Lights As A Prediction Method

Another phenomena used by some to predict quakes are earthquake lights. Retired USGS seismologist John Derr said that they have been studied by a small group of scientists in the U.S.

"The lights are formed because of rocks in the earth that have defect electrons, known as positive holes," Derr said. "These holes form silicate bonds which are broken and then the positive holes are released by the stress of an earthquake. The positive holes propagate to the surface getting a positive charge. Such charges go into the ionosphere causing ionosphere anomalies. If it is above a certain threshold, it will break down air molecules causing visible light."

Derr admits that a pitfall to earthquake lights as a predictor is that they need very specific conditions to propagate. In addition, they are more difficult to see in daylight or in urban areas where they can be mistaken for neon lights.

"In many cases, the technology is not available to actually identify those lights as earthquake lights," Derr said. "If we were able to positively identify them as earthquake lights, we could have up to three weeks warning of an upcoming earthquake. However, it is these drawbacks that have discouraged mainstream scientists at USGS from taking this phenomena seriously."

Nevertheless, Derr thinks that earthquake light predictions have a better chance of shedding science fiction from science fact than other precursors.

"In terms of an operational system, earthquake lights are worth pursuing because you can record them with instruments," Derr said. "The company Quakefinder works with air ionization adjacent to faults."

Derr said the research into finding the right instruments to record the data is very promising and is irritated that the USGS have consistently ignored it. By comparison, earthquake lights are better predictors than animal behavior, he said.

"A company at Menlo Park did an experiment on animals to see how they react to earthquakes. Unfortunately all the animals acted strangely after the quake and none before one," Derr said.

Derr thinks that the spectacular light shows that accompanied the L'Aquila earthquake in Italy in 2009, and the Lima earthquake in 2007, were well-documented and warrant another look from the seismology community.

Earthquake Forecasting

SCECS seismologist, Mark Benthien thinks little of Derr's theory on earthquake lights.

"Earthquake lights are something that happen sometimes, but not all the time that they can be used regularly," he said.

Benthien studies earthquake forecasting, which is different from both earthquake detection and prediction. Earthquake forecasting works in 30-year spans. 

"We pull together information on the faults over a thousands of years of history, and put that into a model for what we might expect in the future," Benthien said.

Benthien said the project, known as the Uniform California Rapture Forecast, is useful in home mortgage and property development.

"These forecasts can't tell you on a certain day there will be this magnitude earthquake. What it can tell you is that in this 30-year period, there is a certain percentage chance of having a major earthquake near your property." He added that there is a 10 percent chance of a major earthquake in the next 30 years.

Although scientists like Berkland and Derr have identified phenomena to warn of impending earthquakes, mainstream scientists have refuted their predictions and have developed the Earthquake Early Warning System. For people who do not take earthquake predictions seriously, they can always participate in the Great Shakeout to prepare for when that 30-second warning arrives.


Reach Staff Reporter Byron Tseng here.



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