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Warning where the Big One will hit

A major fault ruptures somewhere along the 70-mile-long Hayward Fault. But where? Is the break at just one point along the restless slab, or many?

Answers are crucial to predicting where the worst shock will hit and how much damage it will cause. The underground details can provide a precious five- to 30-second warning between the time a temblor is detected and when its destructive energy reaches the surface.

But seismology cannot yet supply the data. Scientists don’t adequately understand the basic physics of the fault-rupturing that triggers the largest quakes — magnitude 7 or greater. And without that insight, they can’t warn citizens, utilities and industry where or what destruction is on its way.

An unusual alliance between a philanthropic foundation, universities and industry has launched a three-year research effort to advance this knowledge and develop a prototype seismic and GPS-based network to pinpoint sites of rupture within seconds.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation provided $6 million over three years to three West Coast universities to refine the understanding of fault dynamics and develop the prototype system. The long-term goal is to provide crucial early warning along the entire West Coast.

“I am confident that this research will allow us to develop a truly effective prototype,” says Richard Allen, director of the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. “With that demonstration, we would seek federal funding for a full-scale West Coast early warning seismic network.

“This would be tremendous progress and could provide in some cases as much as 30 seconds of advance warning to cities, businesses — to millions of people.”

Allen stresses that the goal is not predicting quakes themselves, but rather the location and likely extent of damage of quakes within a few seconds after the deep-earth rupture.

Go to the UC Research website to see Wallace Ravven’s full story.

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