As Japan deals with the seismic shock that damaged the world’s biggest nuclear plant, killed 10 people and injured more than 1,000 this week, it’s also lunging forward in earthquake preparedness — a field in which it leads the globe.
Starting in October, the country that’s in one of the most quake-prone areas in the world will transmit temblor warnings through TV, radio, cell phones and even home devices. The alerts are meant to warn residents up to 20 seconds before the shaking starts.
Doesn’t seem like much time, huh? But in mere seconds, a student could duck under a desk, a utility company could close a gas line and a doctor could delay surgery.
“That could save lives if they had a few seconds,” said Thomas Jordan, the director of the Southern California Earthquake Center. “They are useful for electrical power grids, certain infrastructure, gas lines. [But] it’s a very short warning.”
The United States, which is a few years away from deploying this type of early warning system, sees Japan as a living lab for the technology. Early warning systems are also used in Taiwan, Mexico and Turkey. But Japan boasts the largest network of seismic monitors in the world, with roughly 1,000 that can sound earthquake alerts.
“We’ve been watching the Japanese system for two to three years,” said William Leith, who is overseeing tests on the early warning systems for the U.S. Geological Survey. “It’s done substantially and improved greatly.”
Japan has been testing early warning systems for several years with selected households, rail companies and hospitals. It offered the service publicly about a year ago, mostly to companies and organizations, and will widen the release on Oct. 1. Private companies are getting in on the trend as well by selling personal early warning systems.
In the United States, people can buy take-home devices, too: They generally don’t provide advance warning, but rather can shut off a valve or the power when shaking occurs.
Leith said the United States lags behind Japan because the Asian country has made a “national commitment” to preparing for earthquakes — and with that flows funding.
“It’s a considerable investment. They have a higher risk than we have in California,” he said. “Maybe their investment is more justified.”
So is Japan actually closer to predicting earthquakes, perhaps minutes or even hours in advance? The answer lies in the science that allows these warnings: At a temblor’s onset, its epicenter simultaneously sends out several waves at various speeds and magnitudes. The faster “P” or primary wave moves vertically, spurring a slight jolt. The slower “S” or secondary wave travels horizontally but triggers the strongest tremors.
The early warning system exploits the delay by using the faster “P” wave to estimate the magnitude and timing of the worst shaking brought on by the “S” wave — all in an average of 6.6 seconds, according to Japan’s Meteorological Agency.
“The early warning system starts when the earthquake starts,” Leith said. “It doesn’t provide predictive ability.”
The glitch is, if you live on top of the epicenter, there is no lag, and thus no warning. This was the case for the region on Japan’s northern coast hardest hit by Monday's 6.8-magnitude quake. That region includes the cities of Kashiwazaki and Kariwa, as well as the nuclear reactor that was damaged.
Although the seven reactors of the nuclear plant in Kashiwazaki-Kariwa shut down automatically when the quake hit, the plant continued to leak small amounts of radioactive material two days after the quake. That sparked pointed questions about the plant's preparedness, and led the Japanese government to call for urgent earthquake-proofing checks at all of the country's 55 nuclear plants.
System has its downside
Tom Bleier, the chief executive officer of QuakeFinder, a California-based company that studies earthquake prediction, questions the benefits of the early warning system.
“Good luck if you can get five or 10 seconds. If you’re that far away it’s probably not going to damage that much,” he said. “You have to be close for the warning to do you some good — but too close, and you get no warning.”
Another problem is that the system’s accuracy isn’t 100 percent. False alarms could create needless panic — which is one of the concerns at USGS.
“The faster we can provide warning, the better — but the faster the information about the earthquake, the less certain the answer,” said Michael Blanpied, who studies earthquake physics and occurrence at USGS.
He also worries about the public’s expectations, such as the false impression that the system can predict quakes. Also, the varying — and short — warning times may irk people, especially those who get no warning at all.
“Another concern is public acceptance or frustration — lessons that will be valuable in the US,” Blanpied said.
So when will earthquake prediction become a reality? Some say never.
“People are looking for the silver bullet,” said the Southern California Earthquake Center's Jordan, who is also a seismology professor at the University of Southern California. “It seems logical that something would happen before an earthquake. [But] there is no signal that is diagnostic.”
Others still hold out hope. Bleier of QuakeFinder prefers to talk about “forecasting” rather than “prediction” — but regardless of which term you use, he believes the feat will be possible someday.
“There has got to be a physical phenomenon that happens in the time period before the earthquake [that is predictable],” he said.
Prediction labs vary widely in their approaches to the problem, Leith of USGS said. “Some are speculative; some are founded more in how earthquake process works,” he said. Leith said QuakeFinder appeared to be working with a scant body of scientific evidence, “but their work continues.”
Research has unearthed some answers about seismic phenomena, but it hasn’t yet answered the big question on most people’s minds: When will the Big One strike?
“We want to predict when,” Jordan said. “We know where, how frequent approximately, how big they can be.”
But even if we could predict earthquakes, that wouldn’t prevent them — as is the case with other natural hazards ranging from tornadoes to volcanic eruptions. “For some extent, we’re just going to have to deal with them,” Jordan said. “We’re just going to get dinged by earthquakes.”
So what’s the best defense?
Experts say fortifying buildings can drop death rates from hundreds of thousands to a few — or even none. In the wake of an earthquake, accurate “shake maps” can tell emergency workers which areas are the hardest-hit, so they quickly know where to concentrate their efforts.
“A lot can still be done to improve building safety and response,” Jordan said.
Most earthquake-prone areas have set up strict building codes, designed to keep infrastructure from crumbling after a seismic event. The problem is that older buildings aren’t as hardy, and bringing them up to code can cost more than the structure’s worth.
Jordan said seismologists have made huge strides in sparing lives in earthquakes — to the point that the focus of concern is turning from the sheer loss of life to the economic setbacks tied to infrastructure damage. This week’s quake in Japan serves as an example: The damage done to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant could spark worries in other parts of the world about nuclear reactors that straddle fault lines.
“The nuclear plant was the world’s largest nuclear facility. It produces more electricity than any other in the world,” Jordan said. “The fact that it was damaged raises concerns. People will be talking about this for a while.”
According to Japan’s Meteorological Agency, businesses have had a year’s time already to fill out the paperwork to install these early warning systems,but there's no evidence that any of Japan’s nuclear plants has done so.
NBC Producer Arata Yamamoto in Tokyo and The Associated Press contributed to this report.