From Caltech: “Lessons from the 1994 Northridge Quake”

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From Caltech

01/17/2014 [Just now in social media]

Written by Cynthia Eller
Deborah Williams-Hedges
(626) 395-3227

A portion of the Golden State Freeway in Gavin Canyon that collapsed during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Credit: FEMA

Current Earthquake Research at Caltech

Since the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake 20 years ago (January 17, 1994), researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have learned much more about where earthquakes are likely to happen, and how danger to human life and damage to property might be mitigated when they do occur.

“The Northridge quake really heralded the beginning of a new era in earthquake research, not only in southern California, but worldwide,” says Michael Gurnis, John E. and Hazel S. Smits Professor of Geophysics, and director of the Seismological Laboratory at Caltech.

In the years just prior to the Northridge earthquake, Caltech launched a program called TERRAscope supported by the Whittier foundations, which placed high-quality seismic sensors near where earthquakes occur. The Northridge earthquake was, in effect, the first test of TERRAscope in which Caltech scientists could infer the distribution of an earthquake rupture on subsurface faults and directly measure the associated motion of the ground with greater accuracy. “With a modern digital seismic network, the potential of measuring ground shaking in real time presented itself,” says Gurnis. “The real time view also gave first responders detailed maps of ground shaking so that they could respond to those in need immediately after a quake,” adds Egill Hauksson, senior research associate at Caltech.

To give us this new view of earthquakes, Caltech collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the California Geological Survey to form TriNet, through which a vastly expanded network of instrumentation was put in place across southern California. Concurrently, a new network of continuously operated GPS stations was permanently deployed by a group of geophysicists under the auspices of the Southern California Earthquake Center, funded by the USGS, NASA, NSF, and the Keck Foundation. GPS data are used to measure displacements as small as 1 millimeter per year between stations at any two locations, making it possible to track motions during, between, and after earthquakes. Similar and even larger networks of seismometers and GPS sensors have now been deployed across the United States, especially EarthScope, supported by the NSF, and in countries around the world by various respective national agencies like the networks deployed by the Japanese government.

Initially, says Gurnis, there were not many large earthquakes to track with the new dense network of broadband seismic instruments and GPS devices. That all changed in December 2004 with the magnitude 9.3 earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Quite abruptly, Caltech scientists had an enormous amount of information coming in from the instrumentation in Indonesia previously deployed by the Caltech Techtonics Observatory with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. By the time the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake hit northern Japan in 2011, the Seismological Laboratory at Caltech had developed greatly expanded computing power capable of ingesting massive amounts of seismic and geodetic data. Within weeks of the disaster, a team led by Caltech professor of geophysics Mark Simons using data from GPS systems installed by the Japanese had produced extensive measurements of ground motion, as well as earthquake models constrained by this data, that provided new insight into the mechanics of plate tectonics and fault ruptures.

The Tohoku-Oki earthquake was unprecedented: scientists estimate that over 50 meters of slip on the subsurface fault occurred during the devastating earthquake. Currently, scientists at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are prototyping new automated systems for exploiting the wealth of GPS and satellite imaging data to rapidly provide disaster assessment and situational awareness as events occur around the globe. “We are now at a juncture in time where new observational capabilities and available computational power will allow us to provide critical information with unprecedented speed and resolution,” says Simons.

Earthquakes are notable—and, for many, particularly upsetting—because they have always come without warning. Earthquakes do in fact happen quickly and unpredictably, but not so much so that early-warning systems are impossible. In a Moore Foundation-supported collaboration with UC Berkeley, the University of Washington, and the USGS, Caltech is developing a prototype early-warning system that may provide seconds to tens of seconds of warning to people in areas about to experience ground shaking, and minutes of warning to people potentially in the path of a tsunami. Japan invested heavily in an earthquake early-warning system after the magnitude 6.9 Kobe earthquake that occurred January 17, 1995, on the one-year anniversary of the Northridge earthquake, and the system performed well during the Tohoku-Oki earthquake. “It was a major scientific and technological accomplishment,” says Gurnis. “High-speed rail trains slowed and stopped as earthquake warnings came in, and there were no derailments as a result of the quake.”

Closer to home, Caltech professor of geophysics Robert Clayton has aided local earthquake detection by distributing wallet-sized seismometers to residents of the greater Pasadena area to keep in their homes. The seismometers are attached to a USB drive on each resident’s computer, which is to remain on at all times. The data from these seismometers serve two functions: they record seismic activity on a detailed block-by-block scale, and, in the event of a large earthquake, they can help identify areas that are hardest hit. One lesson learned in the Northridge earthquake was that serious damage can occur far from the epicenter of an earthquake. The presence of many seismometers could help first responders to find the worst-affected areas more quickly after an earthquake strikes.

Caltech scientists have also been playing a leading role in the large multi-institutional Salton Seismic Imaging Project. The project is mapping the San Andreas fault and discovering additional faults by setting off underground explosions and underwater bursts of compressed air and then measuring the transmission of the resulting sound waves and vibrations through sediment. According to Joann Stock, professor of geology and geophysics at Caltech, knowing the geometry of faults and the composition of nearby sediments informs our understanding of the types of earthquakes that will occur in the future, and the reaction of the local sediment to ground shaking.

In addition, Caltech scientists learned much through simulating—via both computer modeling and physical modeling techniques—how earthquakes occur and what they leave in their aftermath.

Computer simulations of how buildings respond during earthquakes recently allowed Caltech professors Thomas Heaton, professor of engineering seismology, and John Hall, professor of civil engineering, to estimate the decrease in building safety caused by the existence of defective welds in steel-frame structures, a problem identified after the Northridge earthquake. Researchers simulated the behavior of different 6- and 20-story building models in a variety of potential earthquake scenarios created by the Southern California Earthquake Center for the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. The study showed that defective welds make a building significantly more susceptible to collapse and irreparable damage, and also found that stiffer, higher-strength buildings perform better than more flexible, lower-strength designs.

Caltech professor of mechanical engineering and geophysics Nadia Lapusta recently used computer simulations of numerous earthquakes to determine what role “creeping” fault slip might play in earthquake events. It has been known for some time that, in addition to the rapid displacements that trigger earthquakes, land also slips very slowly along fault lines, a process that was thought to stop incoming earthquake rupture. Instead, Lapusta’s models show that these “stable segments” may become seismically active in an earthquake, accelerating and even strengthening its motions. Lapusta hypothesizes that this was one factor behind the severity of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. Taking advantage of advances in computer modeling, Lapusta and her colleague Jean-Philippe Avouac, Earle C. Anthony Professor of Geology at Caltech, have created a comprehensive model of a fault zone, including both its earthquake activity and its behavior in seismically quiet times.

Physical modeling of earthquakes is carried out at Caltech via collaborative efforts between the Divisions of Geological and Planetary Sciences and of Engineering and Applied Science. A series of experiments conducted by Ares Rosakis, the Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering, and collaborators including Lapusta and Hiroo Kanamori, the John E. and Hazel S. Smits Professor of Geophysics, Emeritus, used polymer plates to simulate land masses. Stresses were then created at various angles to the fault lines between the plates to set off earthquake-like activity. The motion in the polymer plates was measured by laser vibrometers while a high-speed camera recorded the movements in detail, yielding unprecedented data on the propagation of seismic waves. Researchers learned that strike-slip faults like the San Andreas may rupture in more than one direction (it was previously believed that these faults had a preferred direction), and that in addition to sliding along a fault, ruptures may occur in a “self-healing” pulselike manner in which a seismic wave “crawls” down a fault line. A third study drew conclusions about how faults will behave—in either a classic cracklike sliding rupture or in a pulselike rupture—depending on the angle at which compression forces strike the fault.

“Northridge was a devastating earthquake for Los Angeles, and there was a massive amount of damage,” Gurnis says, “But in some sense, we stepped up to the plate after Northridge to determine what we could do better. And as a result we have ushered in an era of dense, high-fidelity geophysical networks on top of hazardous faults. We’ve exploited these networks to better understand how earthquakes occur, and we’ve pushed the limits such that we are now at the dawn of a new era of earthquake early warning in the United States. That’s because of Northridge.”

See the full article here .

Earthquake Alert


Earthquake Alert

Earthquake Network projectEarthquake Network is a research project which aims at developing and maintaining a crowdsourced smartphone-based earthquake warning system at a global level. Smartphones made available by the population are used to detect the earthquake waves using the on-board accelerometers. When an earthquake is detected, an earthquake warning is issued in order to alert the population not yet reached by the damaging waves of the earthquake.

The project started on January 1, 2013 with the release of the homonymous Android application Earthquake Network. The author of the research project and developer of the smartphone application is Francesco Finazzi of the University of Bergamo, Italy.

Get the app in the Google Play store.

Smartphone network spatial distribution (green and red dots) on December 4, 2015

Meet The Quake-Catcher Network

QCN bloc

Quake-Catcher Network

The Quake-Catcher Network is a collaborative initiative for developing the world’s largest, low-cost strong-motion seismic network by utilizing sensors in and attached to internet-connected computers. With your help, the Quake-Catcher Network can provide better understanding of earthquakes, give early warning to schools, emergency response systems, and others. The Quake-Catcher Network also provides educational software designed to help teach about earthquakes and earthquake hazards.

After almost eight years at Stanford, and a year at CalTech, the QCN project is moving to the University of Southern California Dept. of Earth Sciences. QCN will be sponsored by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) and the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC).

The Quake-Catcher Network is a distributed computing network that links volunteer hosted computers into a real-time motion sensing network. QCN is one of many scientific computing projects that runs on the world-renowned distributed computing platform Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC).

The volunteer computers monitor vibrational sensors called MEMS accelerometers, and digitally transmit “triggers” to QCN’s servers whenever strong new motions are observed. QCN’s servers sift through these signals, and determine which ones represent earthquakes, and which ones represent cultural noise (like doors slamming, or trucks driving by).

There are two categories of sensors used by QCN: 1) internal mobile device sensors, and 2) external USB sensors.

Mobile Devices: MEMS sensors are often included in laptops, games, cell phones, and other electronic devices for hardware protection, navigation, and game control. When these devices are still and connected to QCN, QCN software monitors the internal accelerometer for strong new shaking. Unfortunately, these devices are rarely secured to the floor, so they may bounce around when a large earthquake occurs. While this is less than ideal for characterizing the regional ground shaking, many such sensors can still provide useful information about earthquake locations and magnitudes.

USB Sensors: MEMS sensors can be mounted to the floor and connected to a desktop computer via a USB cable. These sensors have several advantages over mobile device sensors. 1) By mounting them to the floor, they measure more reliable shaking than mobile devices. 2) These sensors typically have lower noise and better resolution of 3D motion. 3) Desktops are often left on and do not move. 4) The USB sensor is physically removed from the game, phone, or laptop, so human interaction with the device doesn’t reduce the sensors’ performance. 5) USB sensors can be aligned to North, so we know what direction the horizontal “X” and “Y” axes correspond to.

If you are a science teacher at a K-12 school, please apply for a free USB sensor and accompanying QCN software. QCN has been able to purchase sensors to donate to schools in need. If you are interested in donating to the program or requesting a sensor, click here.

BOINC is a leader in the field(s) of Distributed Computing, Grid Computing and Citizen Cyberscience.BOINC is more properly the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, developed at UC Berkeley.

Earthquake safety is a responsibility shared by billions worldwide. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) provides software so that individuals can join together to improve earthquake monitoring, earthquake awareness, and the science of earthquakes. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) links existing networked laptops and desktops in hopes to form the worlds largest strong-motion seismic network.

Below, the QCN Quake Catcher Network map
QCN Quake Catcher Network map

ShakeAlert: An Earthquake Early Warning System for the West Coast of the United States

The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) along with a coalition of State and university partners is developing and testing an earthquake early warning (EEW) system called ShakeAlert for the west coast of the United States. Long term funding must be secured before the system can begin sending general public notifications, however, some limited pilot projects are active and more are being developed. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018.

Watch a video describing how ShakeAlert works in English or Spanish.

The primary project partners include:

United States Geological Survey
California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES)
California Geological Survey
California Institute of Technology
University of California Berkeley
University of Washington
University of Oregon
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

The Earthquake Threat

Earthquakes pose a national challenge because more than 143 million Americans live in areas of significant seismic risk across 39 states. Most of our Nation’s earthquake risk is concentrated on the West Coast of the United States. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated the average annualized loss from earthquakes, nationwide, to be $5.3 billion, with 77 percent of that figure ($4.1 billion) coming from California, Washington, and Oregon, and 66 percent ($3.5 billion) from California alone. In the next 30 years, California has a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake and the Pacific Northwest has a 10 percent chance of a magnitude 8 to 9 megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone.

Part of the Solution

Today, the technology exists to detect earthquakes, so quickly, that an alert can reach some areas before strong shaking arrives. The purpose of the ShakeAlert system is to identify and characterize an earthquake a few seconds after it begins, calculate the likely intensity of ground shaking that will result, and deliver warnings to people and infrastructure in harm’s way. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave arrives, bringing the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage.

Studies of earthquake early warning methods in California have shown that the warning time would range from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds. ShakeAlert can give enough time to slow trains and taxiing planes, to prevent cars from entering bridges and tunnels, to move away from dangerous machines or chemicals in work environments and to take cover under a desk, or to automatically shut down and isolate industrial systems. Taking such actions before shaking starts can reduce damage and casualties during an earthquake. It can also prevent cascading failures in the aftermath of an event. For example, isolating utilities before shaking starts can reduce the number of fire initiations.

System Goal

The USGS will issue public warnings of potentially damaging earthquakes and provide warning parameter data to government agencies and private users on a region-by-region basis, as soon as the ShakeAlert system, its products, and its parametric data meet minimum quality and reliability standards in those geographic regions. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018. Product availability will expand geographically via ANSS regional seismic networks, such that ShakeAlert products and warnings become available for all regions with dense seismic instrumentation.

Current Status

The West Coast ShakeAlert system is being developed by expanding and upgrading the infrastructure of regional seismic networks that are part of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS); the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) is made up of the Southern California Seismic Network, SCSN) and the Northern California Seismic System, NCSS and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN). This enables the USGS and ANSS to leverage their substantial investment in sensor networks, data telemetry systems, data processing centers, and software for earthquake monitoring activities residing in these network centers. The ShakeAlert system has been sending live alerts to “beta” users in California since January of 2012 and in the Pacific Northwest since February of 2015.

In February of 2016 the USGS, along with its partners, rolled-out the next-generation ShakeAlert early warning test system in California joined by Oregon and Washington in April 2017. This West Coast-wide “production prototype” has been designed for redundant, reliable operations. The system includes geographically distributed servers, and allows for automatic fail-over if connection is lost.

This next-generation system will not yet support public warnings but does allow selected early adopters to develop and deploy pilot implementations that take protective actions triggered by the ShakeAlert notifications in areas with sufficient sensor coverage.


The USGS will develop and operate the ShakeAlert system, and issue public notifications under collaborative authorities with FEMA, as part of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, as enacted by the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, 42 U.S.C. §§ 7704 SEC. 2.

For More Information

Robert de Groot, ShakeAlert National Coordinator for Communication, Education, and Outreach

Learn more about EEW Research

ShakeAlert Fact Sheet

ShakeAlert Implementation Plan

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Stem Education Coalition

The California Institute of Technology (commonly referred to as Caltech) is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. “The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”

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