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False alarms may be a necessary part of earthquake early warnings

Alerts would have to go out before the temblor’s strength is clear

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4:20pm, March 21, 2018
earthquake damage

SHAKE DAMAGE  The magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 killed 63 people and caused thousands of injuries in Northern California.

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Earthquake warning systems face a tough trade-off: To give enough time to take cover or shut down emergency systems, alerts may need to go out before it’s clear how strong the quake will be. And that raises the risk of false alarms, undermining confidence in any warning system.

A new study aims to quantify the best-case scenario for warning time from a hypothetical earthquake early warning system. The result? There is no magic formula for deciding when to issue an alert, the researchers report online March 21 in Science Advances.

“We have a choice when issuing earthquake warnings,” says study leader Sarah Minson, a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, in Menlo Park, Calif. “You have to think about your relative risk appetite: What is the cost of taking action versus the cost of the damage you’re trying to prevent?”

For locations far from a large quake’s origin, waiting for clear signs of risk before sending an alert may mean waiting too long for people to be able to take protective action. But for those tasked with managing critical infrastructure, such as airports, trains or nuclear power plants, an early warning even if false may be preferable to an alert coming too late (SN: 4/19/14, p. 16).

Alerts issued by earthquake early warning systems, called EEWs, are based on several parameters: the depth and location of the quake’s origin, its estimated magnitude and the ground properties, such as the types of soil and rock that seismic waves would travel through.

“The trick to earthquake early warning systems is that it’s a misnomer,” Minson says. Such systems don’t warn that a quake is imminent. Instead, they alert people that a quake has already happened, giving them precious seconds — perhaps a minute or two — to prepare for imminent ground shaking.

Estimating magnitude turns out to be a sticking point. It is impossible to distinguish a powerful earthquake in its earliest stages from a small, weak quake, according to a 2016 study by a team of researchers that included Men-Andrin Meier, a seismologist at Caltech who also coauthors the new study. Estimating magnitude for larger quakes also takes more time, because the rupture of the fault lasts perhaps several seconds longer – a significant chunk of time when it comes to EEW. And there is a trade-off in terms of distance: For locations farther away, there is less certainty the shaking will reach that far.

Earthquake warning trade-off

Because a quake's strength isn't clear at first rupture, emergency response managers face a choice when issuing warnings: Issue alerts early and often (left), which could provide as much as 48 seconds of warning that light shaking might occur but risk false alarms; or wait to issue alerts until the size of the quake is better known (right) but risk the warnings arriving too late — providing an 8-second warning in this hypothetical case. 

In the new study, Minson, Meier and colleagues used standard ground-motion prediction equations to calculate the minimum quake magnitude that would produce shaking at any distance. Then, they calculated how quickly an EEW could estimate whether the quake would exceed that minimum magnitude to qualify for an alert. Finally, the team estimated how long it would take for the shaking to strike a location. Ultimately, they determined, EEW holds the greatest benefit for users who are willing to take action early, even with the risk of false alarms. The team hopes its paper provides a framework to help emergency response managers make those decisions.

EEWs are already in operation around the world, from Mexico to Japan. USGS, in collaboration with researchers and universities, has been developing the ShakeAlert system for the earthquake-prone U.S. West Coast. It is expected be rolled out this year, although plans for future expansion may be in jeopardy: President Trump’s proposed 2019 budget cuts the USGS program’s $8.2 million in funding. It’s unclear whether Congress will spare those funds.

The value of any alert system will ultimately depend on whether it fulfills its objective — getting people to take cover swiftly in order to save lives. “More than half of injuries from past earthquakes are associated with things falling on people,” says Richard Allen, a seismologist at the University of California, Berkeley who was not involved in the new study. “A few seconds of warning can more than halve the number of injuries.”

But the researchers acknowledge there is a danger in issuing too many false alarms. People may become complacent and ignore future warnings. “We are playing a precautionary game,” Minson says. “It’s a warning system, not a guarantee.”

Citations

S.E. Minson et al. The limits of earthquake early warning: Timeliness of ground motion estimates. Science Advances. Published online March 21, 2018. Doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aaq0504

M.-A. Meier, T. Heaton and J. Clinton. Evidence for universal earthquake rupture initiation behavior. Geophysical Research Letters. July 29, 2016. doi: 10.1002/2016GL070081.

Further Reading

T. Sumner. New app puts an earthquake detector in your pocket. Science News. Vol. 189, March 5, 2016, p. 17.

A. Witze. Buying time when quakes hit. Science News. Vol. 185, April 19, 2014, p. 16.

K.B. Brody. Shaky forecasts. Science News. Vol. 176, August 29, 2009, p. 26.

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