by: Graham Johnson Updated:
In cities around San Francisco Bay, commuter trains travel as fast as 70 miles per hour. If an earthquake strikes, passengers could fall onto one another in crowded cars and trains could derail, trapping them in tunnels.
Now, there's a new system in place to automatically slow the trains to a safer 26 miles per hour before the ground begins shaking.
It's the first phase of an earthquake early warning system for the U.S. West Coast, and scientists have hopes of expanding it widely to include warnings to the public.
Japan has a sophisticated system that creates alerts on television and cellphones.
In the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, nearly 16,000 people died. But countless lives were also saved because people had up to 80 seconds to brace themselves in safe places.
"They've saved a lot of lives and almost every time it's worked," said Washington State Seismologist John Vidale, who leads the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington.
Vidale estimates a sophisticated early warning system for the West Coast would cost about $17 million per year.
The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network has 400 monitoring stations now. Another thousand could be needed to create a sophisticated system.
The success of the system depends on detecting earthquakes that strike far enough from population centers to allow time for a warning.
Early warnings are triggered when seismometers detect initial earthquake waves. They travel faster than secondary waves that cause damage.
In Seattle, warnings could give people just enough time to brace themselves if initial earthquake waves were detected on the coast. If the epicenter was right under the city, there be no warning at all.
The first phase of the rollout in the Seattle area involves providing early-warning information to major businesses. University of Washington seismologist Bill Steele is working on plans to give information to Boeing, Microsoft, Intel, BP and Providence hospitals.
Each will decide how they'll respond. Ideas include halting factory work, shutting off pipelines and stopping surgeries.
"If I were on the operating table, I'd love it if my surgeon had a minute's warning," Steele said.
At first, warnings will not go to the general public, and that's deliberate.
"We're going to have false alarms, we're going to have hiccups, we're going to have missed opportunities," Steele said.
Scientists hope to work out the bugs with the companies, then push for a system that alerts everyone by TV or cellphone with clear messages about what to do.
The University of California-Berkeley provides warning data to Bay Area Rapid Transit to slow trains, but also not yet to the general public.
Berkeley geophysicist Peggy Hellweg says when the system is fully built, the public would be given clear information about the intensity of the shaking expected, and the number of seconds before the earthquake is felt.
Intensity is measured on a scale of 1-12, with anything over 10 total destruction.
"You don't want to be in a 12," Hellweg said.
She thinks people will be more prepared for earthquakes if they begin thinking about what they'd do if given warning that the ground was about to shake.
"You drop, cover and hold on," Hellweg said.
Scientists estimate the project could be online five years after being funded.
Right now, there's no money for an early warning system. Seismologists hope to sell Congress on the lifesaving potential and push for federal funding.
Jennifer Strauss, external relations officer for Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, puts it this way: "We're trying not to wait until the next really devastating earthquake in our area to all of a sudden find money to fund this."