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Earth Technology

A Cheap, Ubiquitous Earthquake Warning System 101

Tekla Perry writes: Earthquake alert systems that give a 10 or 20 second warning of an impending temblor, enabling automatic systems to shut down and people to take cover, are hugely expensive to build and operate. (One estimate is $38.3 milllion for equipment to span California, and another $16.1 million annually to operate.) But a Palo Alto entrepreneur thinks he's got a way to sense earthquakes and provide alerts far more cheaply and with much greater resolution. And he's got money from the National Science Foundation to begin the first test of his system — covering the Bay Area from Santa Cruz to Napa and the cities of Hollister, Coalinga, and Parkfield. He starts that test next month.
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A Cheap, Ubiquitous Earthquake Warning System

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  • What am I missing? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 28, 2015 @05:17AM (#49567203)

    Hmm... let me think... $38.3M one time and $16.1M/year in maintenance does sound like pocket cash to me, given the population at risk here...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      That was my thought too. $38 mil is nothing for california, and given the upside (lots of people not dying horribly), it seems worth funding.

      To put in perspective, last year CA made $82m on cigarette taxes alone [ca.gov] and plans to spend about 10.3 billion [ca.gov] in public safety spending 2015. I think $36m for this cause could easily be raised and appropriated.

      Hell, just fully legalize pot and let the taxes on that pay for it. Who's onboard?

      • That was my thought too. $38 mil is nothing for california, and given the upside (lots of people not dying horribly), it seems worth funding.

        To put in perspective, last year CA made $82m on cigarette taxes alone [ca.gov] and plans to spend about 10.3 billion [ca.gov] in public safety spending 2015. I think $36m for this cause could easily be raised and appropriated.

        Hell, just fully legalize pot and let the taxes on that pay for it. Who's onboard?

        while it is a nice thought I seriously doubt 10 seconds is going to stop many, if any, from dying. It would take a person the best part of that 10 seconds just to realize what was happening as it happens so infrequently OR if the alarm is to sensitive that it goes off all the time for minor tremors then it would be just like a car alarm where people barely even realize one is going off and again still won't react in time.

        • ...hugely expensive to build and operate. (One estimate is $38.3 milllion for equipment to span California, and another $16.1 million annually to operate.

          WHAT? That is crazy cheap for the benefit if it prevents some damage and loss of life in an earthquake. In California, with the building codes in place, most of the damage and injuries come not from collapses but from falling building contents. A system like this would be a huge boon, allowing buildings to develope emergency lockdown procedures that take only seconds to secure dangerous equipment and allow people precious seconds to take cover away from windows and dangerous objects.

          • by cdrudge ( 68377 )

            allowing buildings to develope emergency lockdown procedures that take only seconds to secure dangerous equipment

            Can you give an example of what type of dangerous equipment would need to be secured and could be done so in 10 seconds?

            • Natural gas valves could be shutoff at the building or even better at the substations. "The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 caused 90% of damage by fire." http://www.geo.mtu.edu/UPSeis/... [mtu.edu]
              • Natural gas valves could be shutoff at the building or even better at the substations.

                What is the blowdown time for your pipework system?

                You might be surprised to learn that the flammable fluids industry has some experience in these matters. The last time I was in a position to hear a major gas plant blowing down, it took about a half hour to dump the flammables inventory into the flare stack. (Well, you could leave the gas blowing in the wind. Until it finds an ignition source and flashes back to the so

            • Computers ...
              Powerplants ...
              Gas and water pipeline Valves ...
              Likely gasoline hoses at gas stations ...

              That was the first 30 seconds thinking about it.

            • by Anonymous Coward

              Pianos and safes, mostly. Oh, and anvils.

            • Can you give an example of what type of dangerous equipment would need to be secured and could be done so in 10 seconds?

              Two seconds of thinking...

              Gas valves.
              Motorized equipment such as turbines, motors, etc.
              Shut down laboratories (flames, reaction vessels, etc.)
              Drop security curtains or close cabinet doors over shelved materials that could fall and break causing danger.

              You can automate these things while people run to a "safe area".

            • Can you give an example of what type of dangerous equipment would need to be secured and could be done so in 10 seconds?

              Elevators can stop at the next floor and open their doors.
              Nuclear power plants can insert their control rods.
              Toll bridges can close their gates so no more cars go onto the bridge.
              Same for tunnels.
              Gas valves can shut off.
              Turbines can slow down or stop.
              Sirens can sound in tsunami zones.
              Active seismic control systems can apply tension.
              Bank vaults can lock.
              Automatic security systems can be notified to prevent a flood of false alarms.
              Data centers can sync their HDDs and start their diesel generators.
              Fire station

              • by Anonymous Coward

                Bah, no one is interested in all that.

                No, you use the warming to automatically snap a "selfie" on everyone's phone. The app is called LastSnap. IPO is forthcoming.

            • Scramming of nuclear reactors is one such process. This is the part of the Japanese system that worked. After the shutdown, you have to keep coolant water circulating through the core for a couple of weeks. This takes area planning considerations like making sure that fire engines can connect their hoses to the power-plant plumbing. Oopsie...

          • Also, because I keep a zip line ready to deploy I can fly away to safety. =)

        • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

          10 seconds is more than enough for automated systems to trigger safety protocols.
          Also note that people-not-dying isn't the only possible benefit. People-not-hurt seems pretty good too. Limiting damage to equipment might also be convenient.

        • It would take a person the best part of that 10 seconds just to realize what was happening

          From TFS:

          enabling automatic systems to shut down

          They use such systems in Japan [railway-technology.com] to, for instance, protect shinkansen trains in the event of an earthquake. The system is entirely automated so human response times are irrelevant and the consequences of a bullet train running into a destroyed tunnel or bridge at full tilt don't bear thinking about. And it works: there has never been a fatal accident on the shinkansen network [asiaone.com] (excluding suicides).

      • $38 mil is nothing for california

        And according to TFA, that number is for the entire west coast, not just California.

      • If here my seismology classmate Lucy Jones say that quake happend on a "hidden fault" I'll be very disappointed again. This explanation came from the USGS for about half of the large earthquakes in California in the past 30 years. Yet the oil industry routinely runs 3D sound-tomography surveys to routinely find oil-related faults. The problem is that each oil industry survey costs over $10M. The USGS or academia cannot this cost. So they cleverly try alternative experiments to find what they can. But th
    • Seems cheap to me, too. That's like a dollar per person to install it and less than fifty cents per person per year to run it.

    • The DOT budget in Cali is ~ $14 billion a year. This is a rounding error.

    • by dcw3 ( 649211 )

      Exactly. It's chump change for a place the size of CA.

      • Unfortunately, it is this kind of thinking that has caused California to be flat broke. You thought this last economic downturn was bad, just wait until California runs out of ways to juggle its debts and declares bankruptcy. While this article is a bit dated, this article [dailyreckoning.com] seems to cover it nicely (and there are many more like it).

        This isn't to say a good earthquake warning system isn't money well spent simply that California should be less knee jerk about all the projects that they spend their citizens

    • Though this is likely a cost-benefit solution to saving property & lives, it seems unlikely the estimated costs will be accurate past the first change order.

      The business of government contracting not only implies cost overruns... it virtually guarantees it.

    • by danlip ( 737336 )

      My thought too. $1 per person plus $0.50 per person per year to operate.

      • by ai4px ( 1244212 )
        Hey, that's great... we could require everyone to pay $1.50 a year. Ohh but we gotta give poor people a subsidy because the .50 a year would be an economic hardship for them. Ohh and we'll have to make other people pay more so we can cover the subsidies. Sound familiar?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Sure its not much comparatively, but if it can be done cheaper then why not? One of the problems with our government (local, state & federal) is the "death by a thousand cuts" issue. A few million for cow flatulence research, a few million for a road that goes nowhere, a few...... well a few thousand "a few"s later and you have billions in waste. It sounds like this system can be put in place for less than 12 million and ran for a few hundred thousand a year, FAR less than the numbers the USGS is tal

    • Exactly. Weren't we trying to build a monorail that was going to cost something stupid like $9 billion+? Seems you could run this for a lot of years before you even got close to that budget...
  • by chill ( 34294 ) on Tuesday April 28, 2015 @05:36AM (#49567253) Journal

    Once again, life imitates art.

    https://xkcd.com/723/ [xkcd.com]

  • by Nutria ( 679911 ) on Tuesday April 28, 2015 @05:39AM (#49567261)

    The gov't should convince insurance companies to band together and pony up the cash.

    • The gov't should convince insurance companies to band together and pony up the cash.

      Insurance companies won't be interested. This doesn't save expensive buildings. It gives people a chance to get out of buildings just in time. For an insurance, dead people are cheap.

      • I work at an insurance firm and yet I cannot afford to buy dead people for my necrophiliac lifestyle so you're sorely mistaken.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          I work at an insurance firm and yet I cannot afford to buy dead people for my necrophiliac lifestyle so you're sorely mistaken.

          Visit the morgue and claim corpses that nobody else claims. Sounds like an easy source for your necrophiliac lifestyle.

    • The gov't should convince insurance companies to band together and pony up the cash.

      This reminds me of an old Monty Python joke. When asked about tax policies, one bowler hat guy quips: "I think we should tax foreigners, living abroad!"

      In any democracy, one thing is certain: A bunch of folks think that a bunch of other folks should pay for something all of them need.

      • by Nutria ( 679911 )

        In any democracy, one thing is certain: A bunch of folks think that a bunch of other folks should pay for something all of them need.

        I know why you think that, but in this case, no. Instead, it's risk mitigation, something for which insurance companies are quite familiar and already spend lots of money on.

        • by dcw3 ( 649211 )

          True, but then, they wouldn't need convincing, would they?

          • by Nutria ( 679911 )

            There might be some legal/bureaucratic impediment. Or they might not have thought of it.

            Or the $38.3M early-warning system might not be as mature/effective as claimed...

    • by dcw3 ( 649211 )

      The government would hire consultants, an advertising company, have the EPA do an environmental impact study, and probably outsource the work, spending $100B convincing them.

  • by Demonoid-Penguin ( 1669014 ) on Tuesday April 28, 2015 @06:10AM (#49567341) Homepage

    And they give more than 10 seconds warning. My Jack Russell cross (with Fox Terrier) had distinctive behavior that announced earthquakes. A minute - a minute and a half before quakes she'd act like it was a bad thunderstorm (try and hide under me). About 20 seconds before hand she'd start barking furiously with a mohawk-type ridge of hair standing up along her spine and try and drag me outside, once outside she'd go back to trying to hide under me. Others have reported the same reaction with Jack Russells

    It took a while before we associated the behavior with earthquakes that were often too small or distant for us to notice.

    Not all dogs will reliably detect earthquakes but Jack Russells seem to be very sensitive (they can't stand to be near wood fires or in the same room as an audio recording of one either) - possibly because either/or they are a "below ground dog" (love going down burrows); are "ratters" (have the hearing to listen to rodents).

    • by Anonymous Coward

      There are two types of waves associated with an earthquake. The first travel much faster and do less damage. You dog is sensing those.

      It's possible for people to sense them too, but only in larger earthquakes. I was in the Loma Prieta earthquake and new something was wrong several seconds before I knew it was an earthquake. I couldn't tell there was an earthquake, everything just felt wrong.

    • Buying everybody in California a dog would cost considerably more than $38mil, and food for all those dogs would be considerably more than $16mil/yr.

      • Further, can you imagine an entire state full of Jack Russell terriers?

        Scary.

        • can you imagine an entire state full of Jack Russell terriers?

          Dunno... what's that in units of Beowolf Clusters? (misspelling intentional)

    • Are you sure she wasn't just using Twitter [xkcd.com] when you weren't looking?

      • Are you sure she wasn't just using Twitter [xkcd.com] when you weren't looking?

        • She wasn't a stupid dog
        • Repeating jokes don't make you as witty as the original any more than quoting wisdom makes you wise. Did I mention she wasn't a stupid dog?

        Don't take that the wrong way.

  • by Required Snark ( 1702878 ) on Tuesday April 28, 2015 @06:49AM (#49567449)
    The cost of a single NOAA Doppler radar in 2010 was $7,000,000 [washingtonwatch.com]. That's just to buy the system and install it, no operating budget.

    This funding will complete the purchase of a Doppler Radar system for Southwest Washington and provide for the land and installation costs associated with the system.

    The cost of the "expensive" earthquake early warning system is around the cost of 5 Doppler systems. As of 2013 the National Weather service has access to 159 Doppler installations [noaa.gov].

    In addition to the 122 NWS-owned radars, the full nationwide radar network includes another 37 radar sites owned by the FAA and Defense Department, which will be completely upgraded to dual-pol technology this summer. NOAA’s NEXRAD radar program is a tri-agency effort with NOAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the United States Air Force.

    Note that the national radar network is being upgraded to high end Doppler for tornado and severe storm detection. So why do those in the Midwest, Gulf Coast and East Coast deserve early warning on tornadoes and California gets peanuts ($5,000,000) [abc7news.com] for the inevitable large earthquake? Politics.

    Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) can't explain why more money wasn't approved.

    "It's inexplicable given how much we have at stake here. Obviously these have been very tough budgetary times, but if you're going to invest in something that is significant down the road, this is about the best investment you can make," he said.

    Japan, Mexico, Turkey and Mongolia already have similar systems in place.

    So they can afford this in Mongolia and it's too much for California? Really?

  • by pz ( 113803 ) on Tuesday April 28, 2015 @07:13AM (#49567515) Journal

    (Caution: I read the article.)

    Sounds like a pretty good idea, all-told. An engineer does good with his PhD thesis, starting a non-profit company to create inexpensive MEMS-based earthquake sensors that use the cellular network for communication. Makes them cheap enough that he can deploy them all over the place. But who pays for upkeep? Who pays for electricity?

    Here, we get to the problem: he depends on the kindness of strangers to bolt these small devices to their wall and plug them in -- permanently -- to an available outlet. Why would sufficiently many people do that? And since the dwelling turnover in California is so high (at least compared to the other cities I've lived in, CA residents seem to switch apartments at a furious pace), what's the plan for transferring ownership / upkeep agreements? WIth tens of thousands of sensors, that sounds like an ongoing, permanent customer service management nightmare.

    Don't get me wrong, the idea's a good one. It might be easier to convince people to download an app that looks for tell tale acceleration signatures of a quake. Cell phones already have location information and the owners are already motivated for other reasons to keep them charged and maintained. The potential downside is that the data quality is likely much lower since cell phones aren't rigidly attached to terra firma.

    But that, then, suggests perhaps a dual layer system that includes some company-maintained (he's running a business, after-all) sensors, say installed in a less dense mesh on telephone poles or street lights where they have ready access to (a) rigid fixation, and (b) electrical power, and, importantly, (c) won't be screwed with by the dog / kid / furniture mover. Moreover, upright structures with high aspect ratios, like streetlights, likely amplify ground movement, making detection that much easier. Use that streetlight network for coarse sampling, and the voluntarily downloaded apps as lower-grade, spatially denser sampling. And then, as Randall Munroe suggests in XKCD, monitor the twitterverse for earthquake terms. The apps have next to zero running costs, perhaps only sporadic development and a download server somewhere, the mesh network installation costs can be split between local municipalities, the state, and the NSF, with a maintenance contract to the company from the state. Heck, I'm starting to talk myself into a good business plan!

    But depending on the kindness of strangers to install and maintain a thing in their house? Not such a good idea.

    • by dcw3 ( 649211 )

      How difficult would it be to get the government to connect a sensor array up to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C... [wikipedia.org]

    • This is why there are governments.

      First do a study if this is really a good idea, including a scalability test. Then if so, Explain the citizens why this is such a good idea, and why this is worth the small investment. Then make it mandatory in the building code. Use some carrots and sticks to let people add sensors to existing buildings.

      All boring existing government machinery, but that's how civilised countries got things line warning sirens, vaccination programs, street lights, fire departments, etc. etc

    • by coofercat ( 719737 ) on Tuesday April 28, 2015 @09:20AM (#49568355) Homepage Journal

      Do Californians tend to take their smoke alarms with them when they move house? I ask because where I live we don't tend to do so - if the place you're moving to doesn't have one then you can choose to get one (or not), but once fitted, they tend to stay that way. A lot are battery powered, but all new renovations and new builds have to have mains powered ones that are linked together (just a modicum of building control regulation ensures this). It strikes me that this isn't all that different to having a smoke alarm fitted to your ceiling. If his plan works out, then why couldn't it be added to building control regulations as smoke alarms are where I live?

      • by rthille ( 8526 )

        If they do, they have to buy replacements to leave behind. In CA you can't sell a home without smoke and CO detectors.

      • by l810c ( 551591 ) *

        How good are these things against false alarms?

        Imagine a bunch of teenagers get together and all pound their ceiling near the sensor.

        From a previous post:

        Elevators can stop at the next floor and open their doors.
        Nuclear power plants can insert their control rods.
        Toll bridges can close their gates so no more cars go onto the bridge.
        Same for tunnels.
        Gas valves can shut off.
        Turbines can slow down or stop.
        Sirens can sound in tsunami zones.
        Active seismic control systems can apply tension.
        Bank vaults can lock.
        Automatic security systems can be notified to prevent a flood of false alarms.
        Data centers can sync their HDDs and start their diesel generators.
        Fire station roll up doors can automatically open, so they don't jam closed in the quake.
        Commuter trains can slow down and stop.
        Approaching aircraft can be delayed or diverted.
        Traffic lights can go to all-red.

        And it's just a bunch of teenagers pounding on the ceiling.

        • A single sensor wouldn't trigger a disaster scenario, it (the trigger) would require a consensus of all the sensors in the area.

  • Yildirim says his Zizmos system will have virtually no installation or maintenance costs, because he plans to rely on the kindness of the crowd. Zizmos asks for volunteers to donate a tiny bit of interior wall space and a power outlet to host a sensor package, which is about the size of a deck of cards. Though these packages won’t go into the most remot areas along fault lines, and are far less sensitive than the types of sensors used by systems like ShakeAlert, the wider distribution, he says—10,000, or even 100,000 to cover California, compared with 1000 planned by the USGS—more than compensates for these deficits.

    Oh my, I wonder what magical pixie dust he plans to use to bring the back end costs (setup and maintenance) to zero? A system that monitors 100,000 sensors and is capable of sending messages to almost 40 million people is not going to be done for free.

    • A system that monitors 100,000 sensors and is capable of sending messages to almost 40 million people is not going to be done for free.

      Depends on the level of mnitoring a day. One ping a day, and inbound alerts on "quake detected"? A PIII on ADSL would probably handle that!

      Or, of course, you could give the contract to EDS, and pay $38B.

      • by OzPeter ( 195038 )

        Depends on the level of mnitoring a day. One ping a day, and inbound alerts on "quake detected"? A PIII on ADSL would probably handle that!

        Or, of course, you could give the contract to EDS, and pay $38B.

        You can't spec the back end system out on the non-earthquake situation.

        The "value" in this guys solution is that you have a metric shitload of dumb sensors, and you process the data to determine the epicenter and then send out warnings appropriately. However once you are in an earthquake event, then you are going to get a sizable fraction of that metric shitload of sensors all instantly sending messages to the backend saying "Look at me! Look at me!", and your backend needs to be able to handle those messa

      • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

        How about the 40 million outgoing messages to be delivered within the timespan of a few seconds at most?

  • no mention of 3d printing? nor some kind of phone + crowd sourcing + big data analysis?
    what kind of pragmatic nonsense is this?
  • If I was a multi billionaire, or even just a single billionaire, I would set up a non profit organization, call it "Angel O'Spheres earth quake waring network" and fund it for 100 years. That would be my memorial/monument.

    Sorry, the money you are talking about is retarded low ... there are plenty of hosues or yachts much more expensive then either the $38M or $16M.

  • The article suggests that the price of the device is around two orders of magnitude lower than the price of the planned devices. But then it turns around and says that they'd need up to two orders of magnitude more devices.

    This isn't cost savings. This is just the Internet of Things applied to an existing problem. If it works better, fine, but don't say that the solution is cheaper....
  • " covering the Bay Area from Santa Cruz to Napa and the cities of Hollister, Coalinga, and Parkfield." Considering Oklahoma is now the most seismically active state in the country, perhaps a better location for testing would be there.
  • Check out this project led by Caltech, which (largely) obviates the need for government-paid equipment:

    "Your Phone as Quake Detector"
    <ol><li><URL:https://vimeo.com/98781340> (I made this video!)</li>
    <li><URL:cacm.acm.org/magazines/2014/7/176219></li></ol>
  • This could really shake up the industry!

  • Back in the late 1980s, the W6FXN 2 meter repeater on Buzzard Peak (145.460 MHz) above Cal Poly Pomona was setup to repeat the tone modulated seismic signal from one of the seismometers maintained by USGS (Running Springs on 162.8090 MHz?) when significant tone deviation was detected. Depending on geometry, this provided 5 to 10 seconds of warning to Orange County for earthquakes which were mostly located closer to Los Angeles. There were proposals at the time for extending this idea but as far as I know,

    • Back in the late 1980s, the W6FXN 2 meter repeater

      Damn! I and I've got mod points to burn but can't mod this story. Someone please mod this up.

      [mutter, mutter] Where's the tag for good science overlooked because it's not sexy.

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