Proposed earthquake warning system in California points to additional needs

January 30, 2013  

The need for an earthquake early warning system, as recently proposed in a California bill, is long overdue and highlights other needs, say two researchers within the University of California system associated with the George E Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES).

Jamison Steidl

Jamison Steidl

"Japan and Mexico already have early warning systems, yet there are none in the United States," said Jamison "Jamie" Steidl, a research seismologist and professor at UC Santa Barbara. "The Pacific Northwest, for example, is especially vulnerable, and an early warning system would make a lot of sense there."

The United States also needs to support the U.S. Geological Survey's long-term plans, said Steidl, who manages two ground-motion monitoring and liquefaction research sites of the NEES@UCSB field laboratory in California near the San Andreas and San Jacinto faults.

"Too often we wait until after an earthquake strikes to take action, as was the case after the 1995 earthquake at Kobe in Japan and the one that struck Northridge, Calif., 19 years ago. Japan went on to develop a very sophisticated early warning system. In the United States, some investments were made after Northridge, but then the enthusiasm - and funding - dwindle, and the progress slowed."

A monitoring system also is needed for buildings, said John Wallace, a UCLA professor of civil and environmental engineering who specializes in structural and earthquake engineering.

John Wallace

John Wallace

"This proposed ground instrumentation system for early warning will help prevent loss of life and injury, which are worthy goals. It will not, however, mitigate the billions of dollars in damage the quakes will cause," Wallace said. "Insufficient funding has been appropriated for building instrumentation programs within the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey's) Advanced National Seismic System and California Strong Motion Program. Such programs would provide vital data that improve our understanding of factors that lead to damage and collapse of older buildings that were not constructed to modern building codes, using, for example, non-ductile concrete. They also would improve the economy, safety and resilience of new tall buildings."

Wallace's research has taken him to earthquake sites in Turkey, Taiwan, Chile and Japan. At UCLA he is the principal investigator at the NEES@UCLA mobile laboratory, working with four state-of-the-art mobile shaker systems and extensive monitoring instrumentation systems to capture in detail how full-scale structures such as buildings and bridges respond in earthquakes. The NEES@UCLA equipment was recently used to monitor building shaking in earthquake aftershocks in Chile and New Zealand.

Although such data from earthquakes in other countries are valuable, differences in construction practices and earthquake ground shaking characteristics make it challenging to apply results directly to U.S. practice. This makes it essential, he said, that funding be provided for both a U.S. early warning system and building instrumentation projects, as well as other earthquake-related facilities and research, such as is provided through NEES.

NEES, funded by National Science Foundation, is a 14-site distributed shared-use laboratory of earthquake engineering equipment interconnected by a cyberinfrastructure, managed by Purdue University. NEES provides researchers with access to laboratories, computing and collaboration tools and to a curated central data repository for all data generated from NEES research. Researchers can execute experiments not possible before NEES, conduct computer simulations at U.S. supercomputing centers, measure the results and share them in real time.

The proposed $80 million early warning system for California, called the ShakeAlert, would be based on a demonstration system funded by the USGS and developed by the USGS, UC Berkeley, the University of Washington and the California Institute of Technology. Ongoing research and development also is being funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Not funded, so far, are the capital costs for deployment of this early warning system and the operational costs once built.


John Wallace, 310-206-7124,

Jamison Steidl, 805-893-4905,

Related website:
Los Angeles Times, State lawmaker backs early earthquake warning system for California

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