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5.7.14: “Predicting” an Earthquake After It Happens

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    Seismic shock waves travel through the Earth’s crust much more slowly than electrical signals. A great earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone will probably begin offshore, up to three hundred miles away from the major population centers of Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland. Seismographs on the coast recording a large earthquake on the subduction zone could transmit the signal electronically to Seattle and Sidney more than a minute before strong ground shaking began. Earthquakes offshore detected using the SOSUS array could give even quicker warning. In addition, Richard Allen, now director of the University of California Berkeley Seismological Lab, and Hiroo Kanamori of Caltech have figured out a way to determine earthquake magnitude with no more than one second of P-wave data. This could give early warning of strong shaking even for slab earthquakes generated thirty to forty miles beneath the ground surface.


    This early warning could trigger the shutdown of critical facilities in population centers before the shockwave arrived. Major gas mains could be shut off, schoolchildren could start a duck, cover, and hold drill (see Chapter 15), heavy machinery could be shut down, emergency vehicles could be parked outside, and hospitals could take immediate action in operating rooms. Automatic shutdown systems already exist to stop high-speed trains in Japan. Congress has charged the USGS with the job of submitting a plan to implement a real-time alert system; this is discussed further in Chapter 13. Estimated costs for implementing such a system over five years in the San Francisco Bay Area is $53 million. An alert system is now being developed for the Pacific Northwest (Strauss, 2015).


    Additional information on the proposed Advanced National Seismic System, within which this alert system would operate, is available from Benz et al. (2000), USGS (1999), and

    5.7.14: “Predicting” an Earthquake After It Happens is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert S. Yeats via source content that was edited to conform to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.