Amid all the horrifying reports coming from Japan following Friday’s devastating earthquake/tsunami on the Tohoku coast, here’s something of technological interest: the quake was the first major test of the Japan Meteorological Agency’s Earthquake Early Warning System service, which uses mobile networks as well as broadcast networks to notify recipients of any impending quake at or above 5.0 on the Richter scale.
The system, which went live in late 2007 and cost a reported $1 billion to build, is already being heralded as a success in several media reports, although the term “success” is relative, considering that the closer to the epicenter you are, the less advance warning you get. Residents in Sendai close to the epicenter didn’t get warnings in time, while people in Tokyo got anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute advanced warning, according to variousreports.
(Here’s one video from someone in Tokyo who got his warning via an app on his PC.)
The other mitigating factor is, of course, the tsunami that followed, which may in the end turn out to be responsible for far more casualties than the initial quake. (Japan also has a tsunami warning system that can issue alerts as soon as three minutes after the undersea quake that causes it, though how much time elapses between then and the tsunami reaching shore depends on how far away the epicenter is from the coast. In this case, people had less than an hour before the tsunami hit.)
Obviously it will take time to determine how big a role the early warning system played in saving lives (and how many people didn’t get warnings in areas where others did). However, the data should be invaluable not only to the Japan Meteorological Association, but also to other governments in quake-prone areas that have been looking at similar warning systems linked to mobile.
For example, in the wake of the recent deadly earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, Civil Defence workers there have been trialing such a mobile-enabled system developed by Roam3 (although to be clear, an early warning system like Japan’s wouldn’t have helped Christchurch because the epicenter was too close). In California, a startup called QuakeGuard has set up an early warning system in Coachella Valley.
However – and perhaps inevitably, given the current political debates in the US over federal and state budgets – cost will be an issue. According to one report, a statewide early warning system in California would cost $100 million to install, and $50 million in states like Oregon and Washington, with maintenance costs of $6 million a year.
Granted, it’s hard to argue for funding of a early warning system for a statistically rare event. It will be interesting to see if the data from the Tohoku quake makes a powerful argument in favor of such investments – and what improvements could be made in the JMA's existing system.