Five seconds before the South Napa Earthquake struck, UC Berkeley’s ShakeAlert detected the quake.

The university’s early warning project is intended to give residents a heads-up before an earthquake strikes and damage occurs.

To predict the quakes, scientists use a sensor to detect the arrival of the first round of waves called primary waves or p-waves. These waves are fast but rarely cause any damage. P-waves are followed by secondary waves or s-waves which are slower but do more harm.

ShakeAlert provided warning at the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and to users in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. The system is being developed by UC Berkeley and the United States Geological Survey in cooperation with scientists at California Institute of Technology and University of Washington.

Last September, Governor Jerry Brown approved a bill to create an early warning system. The bill requires that sensors be installed to detect earthquakes and that operators figure out a way to alert the public.

However, ShakeAlert doesn’t have enough backing to scale up, according to Richard Allen who directs the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.

It will cost $80 million over five years to test and deploy the system and another $12 million a year for operational costs.

After Alaska, California experiences more earthquakes than any other state and an early warning system could provide a model for others, if it receives enough funding.

Currently there is no national early warning system.

Instead, under the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, the USGS must issue alerts and improve public safety around earthquakes. While USGS already sends rapid, automatic earthquake information via the Internet, email, text messages and social media it does not currently employ an early warning system.

Funds to test ShakeAlert are currently provided by the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, Google, the City of San Francisco and The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. But it will take a long term financial commitment in order to keep the system running.

UC Berkeley System Gave Early Warning of South Napa Earthquake 22 December,2014Lindsey Hoshaw

  • Jeff Bowles

    This invites a question: how much time does it take to cause every cellphone in the region to ring with a certain alert? Would they all go off at the same moment, or roll through them for long enough that the last warnings would go out after the earthquake finished?

    • withak30

      The Japanese system generates an automatic alarm on TV and radio, and sends an alarms to cell phones (and to computers running some special alarm software) basically all at the same time, within 10 or so seconds of the earthquake being detected. After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake there were videos of offices where everyone’s phone alarms went off at the same time ˜30-60 seconds before the shaking started.

      • Mark

        A very dramatic example from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake can be seen in this video, taken in Sendai City (about 82 miles from the epicenter). Cell phone warnings can be clearly heard before the main shock arrives.

        • In the second clip, interesting to see how the cell phones went off, the people stopped their meeting but nobody put it together that a quake was about to happen. They are all still sitting there.

          And then 30 seconds later, the quake hits. So, it’s clear that the alerts worked but the social factor needs to be improved.

          And the camera man just keeps filming.

  • Lisa Baroni

    how is the government not making sure that this warning system is in place. to avoid mass destruction it seems like it should be a priority. terrifying they give 2 shits about us the people!

    • cantpickaname

      How will a 10 second lead time avoid mass destruction?

      • FareedAnsari

        10 seconds to say your good byes and a quick prayer to get right with the Lord.

      • anonymous

        It can reduce casualities.
        It can facilitate emergency response.
        The earth will still shake. But fewer deaths and fewer fires by themselves are a good thing.

    • Andrew Alden

      Lisa, thanks for saying this. Since before 1906, earthquake science, and earthquake planning work in general, has made progress only in fits and starts. Funding appears after a quake, when people have a little motivation, then after a while it runs out. Ask any seismologist you meet – there are a lot of them in the Bay Area. It takes lucky timing and persistent lobbying to get anything substantial going. It may happen this year, with the new (unfunded) law and widely raised awareness, and California can get started on a modern early warning system like Japan’s and Mexico’s.

  • Mark

    Please note that the system is not earthquake “prediction” (which would be forcasting an earthquake before it occurs). Earthquake early warning sends an alert with estimated intensity and warning time only after shaking is detected and analyzed by seismic sensors, which your article correctly describes.

  • withak30

    This headline is horrible. They didn’t predict the earthquake, they detected it after it happened and generated a prediction on when the waves would arrive at a particular spot. In the bay area this kind of system can’t give much more than 10 or so seconds of warning because the earthquake is guaranteed to be pretty close. That 10 seconds isn’t much use to you and me directly, but it is very useful to (for instance) PG&E and BART who can automatically stop trains and automatically turn off gas valves in that 10 seconds before the shaking starts.

    The system is more useful for places near subduction zones where earthquakes are often bigger and farther away so it is possible to have more warning. For the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, alarms in the Tokyo area gave something like 30 seconds or more of warning which made a real difference in allowing people to get to a safe place in the room before shaking started.

  • JKO

    For all the naysayers, a 10 second warning, especially one that plays loudly on your smart phone (Amber Alert style) is enough to wake you up before the shaking starts.

    Or enough warning to give you a head start towards diving to safety.

    Even if it can only give a 5% higher survival chance, it’s paid for itself if you’re talking about a mass casualty situation.

    • Mark

      The biggest benefit would be linking early warning systems to automated processes. Examples that are commonly cited include: automatically stopping or slowing BART and other trains to prevent derailment, stopping elevators at a floor and opening doors, opening fire station doors and stopping surgeries.

  • Jerome Joseph Gentes

    I’m curious: a significant number of my friends in the area said that they, too, woke up right before. Is it possible that what woke us was the P-waves? The time frame makes sense, about 5-10 seconds before the S-waves. Thoughts?

  • John Cunningham

    How frequently would such a system warn about False Positives? Are there any other reasons for P-Waves to be emitted other than some pending catastrophic quake?

    • Margie

      The two other things that might cause p waves are a mine collapse and an underground nuclear test.

  • Nancy Mac

    Thank you science and UC Berkeley and the others for your research. In a country where the majority of our leaders are science deniers and science morons, and our children pay more attention to sports heroes and video games than to math, it gives me hope that someday we will be able to predict earthquakes. Yes I had issues with the headline as well, but if you do read the article it does describe exactly what they are doing. Oh and BTW my daughter just graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and also just got a job. Money well spent…proud mom.

  • Keith Trinity

    The USGS text I got was 10 minutes after the quake! How can we sign up to be Beta users??

    • Lindsey Hoshaw

      Hi Keith,

      The system isn’t available to the public yet. It’s available to a select group of business, utility and transportation orgs. It needs more testing and funding before it’s widely available. Thanks for asking, it’s a good and important question.

  • sonoma95446

    I would think that the college computer science kids could whip up an app and charge for it on Androids and I-phones whats the hold up? People would gladly pay for a little advance alert.
    Sonoma County

    • Margie

      Actually one of the students in Richard Allen’s early warning research group is working on an app that would help collect the data, thus increasing the accuracy of the system.

  • Kathrinej

    how can someone sign up to be part of the testing?

    • Lindsey Hoshaw

      Hi Katherine,

      According to the ShakeAlert website: The early warning prototype is available to “a small number of selected test users in the business, utility and transportation sectors of California. Public warnings will not be sent as part of this demonstration project.”

      The project still needs to undergo additional testing and receive more funding before it would be released to the public. Thanks for the comment, I think a lot of people are wondering the same thing.

  • Prediction can not be done since the movement of the geological fault on the earth’s crust is not measurable. The slip of the fault is under some kilometers the ground. Detection really is the latest technology. I have learned about earthquake page and make my own on


Lindsey Hoshaw

Lindsey Hoshaw is an interactive producer for KQED Science. Before joining KQED, Lindsey was a science correspondent for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Forbes and Scientific American. On Twitter @lindseyhoshaw

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