H-CENTRAL VALLEY

Mar 13, 2013 10:00 PM by Keli Moore, KSBY News

Could the Central Coast get an early warning for an earthquake?

Some scientists got a 30 second warning Monday before an earthquake hit Southern California. The early warning alert is part of an experiment being conducted by seismologists across the state.

There is no public early warning earthquake system in place, and scientists say it comes down to a lack of funding. They say about $80 million is needed for the project, which would include upgrading current sensors and adding thousands more.

Currently, California has an integrated system that monitors ground movement with roughly 1,500 sensors. Most of the sensors are in Los Angeles County. Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties have about 60 sensors.

"The U.S. does seem to be a little behind in its early warning earthquake process. Japan has a good system and so do other countries," said Ron Alsop, Emergency Services Manager for San Luis Obispo County.

He said the moments leading up to an earthquake can make a big difference.

According to reports, Japan's early warning system alerted some 50-million people before the Fukushima earthquake in 2011. The country has more than 4,200 sensors. California has about a third of that and is larger than Japan by about 20,000 square miles. Scientists say the Central Coast has about 60 sensors.

"Even 15 seconds would give us enough time to duck and cover and get away from windows," said Alsop.

Seismologists say a 30-second warning before an earthquake could allow trains to slow down and factories to evacuate employees to get them away from hazardous materials.

So how do the sensors work?

"It's kind of like a storm, you can see the lightning before you hear the thunder," explained Alsop. "The strong motion sensors pick up the first movement of an earthquake, which is called a P-wave."

Earthquakes travel fast, about three miles per second, so the farther away from the epicenter the more warning people would have. In order for the Central Coast to get a 30 second warning, scientists say they would need a sensor every 12 miles.

Seismologists say if we were starting fresh without the current sensors it would cost $650 million to create a system. If they get $80 million for this project, an early alert earthquake system should be up and running in the next few years.

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