Quake monitor: This world map shows the location and intensity of seismic events. Red and yellow circles indicate events that occurred in the past two weeks.
Had a warning system been in place in China before Monday’s earthquake, the benefits may have been blunted by the poor quality of some of the buildings that collapsed. “There is no early-warning system implemented there, but even if it was, I don’t know how effective it might be in that circumstance, when you have so many people living in bad buildings,” Kanamori says.
Even a sophisticated system like Japan’s is, of course, limited by the short warning time. For example, in 2004, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck in central Japan. A bullet train was running in the area, and thanks to the train-warning system, it shut off its power and hit the brakes. But the quake struck the tracks three seconds later, before the train had lost much velocity. It derailed anyway, the first such derailment in the bullet train’s 40-year history.
Several European countries and the United States are conducting research on earthquake early-warning systems. But while a group of universities in California has developed and tested a warning network, no governmental system is in place to alert the public. “There hasn’t been a major seismic event, and that is very lucky,” Kanamori says. “But without that, there is no real incentive to start doing” public warnings.