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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

By
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.

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

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