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 What Would Joe Do?
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

ShakeAlert vs. QuakeFinder: Predicting the Big One

August 25th, 2014 by Peggy Aycinena

Thirty two hours ago, the earth let loose here in Northern California delivering up a 6.0 earthquake 5 miles southwest of Napa in the heart of the wine country. It was the biggest earthquake we’ve experienced in the region since the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which was a 6.9 on the Richter scale.

The thing about earthquakes is that they come on you suddenly, which is scarier than hell. Nonetheless, at a Sunday afternoon party yesterday in Silicon Valley, where the earthquake was felt even though the epicenter was 80 miles away, a Bay Area native said, “We may not know an earthquake’s coming, but I’d still rather live here than in places where they’ve got tornadoes. Now those are really scary!”

Ironically, on local radio this morning a geologist based in the Midwest was being interviewed about yesterday’s South Napa quake and concluded by saying, “You know, we may have tornadoes in our area, and they are pretty darn scary, but I’d far rather live here than where you guys are. At least we have warning when a tornado’s bearing down on us!”

But is that implication true? Is there no such thing as a warning prior to an earthquake? Well, for those of us who live in Earthquake Country, we are beginning to think [hope] differently.

Researchers at U.C. Berkeley’s ShakeAlert have announced they knew 10 seconds before the South Napa quake hit at 3:20 am yesterday that the event was about to happen. Their ‘magic’ is based on ‘listening’ through a vast network of sensors for the non-destructive primary waves (P waves) that emanate out from an epicenter some seconds before the potentially destructive secondary waves (S waves) roll out.

But is 10 seconds of any use to a population living in the vicinity of an earthquake fault? The ShakeAlert team says yes: If the region is given even 10 seconds warning, there’s enough time to automatically shut down rail systems, to stop elevators at the nearest floor, to close gas mains, to start generators, and to blast sirens warning pedestrians to get away from brick facades – the type that collapsed in the dark of night on the streets of downtown Napa yesterday morning.

Okay, but what if there was a technology that offered even more advanced notice of a pending quake? Below is an interview I did in 2011 with EDA legend Scott Sandler when he was involved promoting a company whose technology is based on a different scheme than that of U.C. Berkeley’s.

QuakeFinder’s scheme would produce days, if not weeks of warning prior to a quake. Like ShakeAlert, it will require a lot of investment, but given the power of the quake that woke us all up in the dead of night here 32 hours ago, injured many and did a lot of damage, the idea of having days or weeks of warning in advance of such an event sounds pretty darn good.


Scott Sandler on QuakeFinder …

Anyone who knew Scott Sandler back in his halcyon days in EDA, when he served as long-time President & CEO at Novas Software [aka SpringSoft], knew he liked to shake things up. These days, 18 months into his retirement out of the industry, Scott’s still thinking about shaking things up, but it’s a different kind of shaking.

Scott’s gotten involved in getting the word out about QuakeFinder, a radical – even “fringe” according to some – technology initiative that hopes to help you and me, and the other dolts who live and work cheek-to-jowl with things like the San Andreas and/or Hayward Faults, know well in advance when the next Big One will be channeling Scott Sandler and really shaking things up.

The QuakeFinder technology, if I understand it correctly, is about looking for changes in the magnetic signature in rocky formations that are kicked up when the electrical currents in those formations are themselves kicked up by increased stresses, the kinds that lead to earthquakes.

So, as the rocky structures beneath and around us – those nasty, fractured, fault-infested structures – start to build up pre-earthquake stresses in the weeks and days prior to an event, their associated electrical currents start to change, and their associated magnetic signatures change, as well. QuakeFinder magnetometers, if placed in sufficient numbers and in clever enough locations, would let us all know with lots of luxurious warning that the next seismic event was approaching.

The value of that pre-event knowledge would massively outrank anything offered by the current state of the art in earthquake prediction – the approximately 3-second warning we [might] get from the extensive network of seismic sensors that currently pepper our faulty world here in Earthquake Country, perched on the Ring of Fire, or the equally useless sometime-in-the-next-30-to-100-years-type warnings that emanate regularly from the offices of the USGS.

It’s not surprising then, given that I’ve lived all my life adjacent to the San Andreas, that this QuakeFinder technology sounds pretty darn nifty to me. So, what’s standing in the way of implementing the necessary network of millions of QF-type sensors, a network with the potential to save thousands of lives and orders of magnitude more in dollars?

The hurdles are two-fold – money and acceptance. That magnetometer network would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to implement to the necessary level of coverage, and the seismic/scientific community isn’t buying into the concept in particularly big numbers [as yet]. Clearly, the folks at QuakeFinder have got their work cut out for them.

Okay, so I’m not an expert in geology, geography, vulcanology, seismology, civil engineering, astronomy, or astrology. But I am expert in stopping dead in my tracks, ‘listening’ for the slightest motion in the floors or walls, and rushing to the entry hall to see if the chandelier is swinging: “Wait! Was that an earthquake???”

So, if the QuakeFinder technology can give me more feedback than the chandelier, and far more lead-time than just that ominous thump that precedes the real thing – yeah, I was here in ’89 – then I’m all for it. Let’s throw some big bucks at this stuff, let’s look closely and critically at the science, and if it’s valid – let’s give it a shot. The millions spent to implement the network would be paid back in spades in the billions that would be saved by knowing far enough in advance of a major event to take defensive, life-and-property saving measures.

Oh, and by the way, Scott Sandler and I talked about QuakeFinder and all its potential over breakfast at Buck’s Café in Woodside, just west of 280 on the San Francisco Peninsula. He didn’t know at the time, and neither did I, exactly how far we were from the San Andreas Fault sitting there calmly drinking our tea. But I told him I’d find out.

The answer? Approximately 1500 meters, or just under a mile. Wow. Like I said, we were at Buck’s which is clearly short for …

“Buckle your seat belt, it’s going to be a bumpy ride!”


Editor’s note …

* SpringSoft is now part of Synopsys.

* The earthquake yesterday was on the little-known South Napa Fault.

* If you don’t have water, food, blankets, flashlights, a way to turn off the gas in your house, and a contact outside the area to notify that you and yours are safe after the Big One, you are simply unprepared for life in Earthquake Country.


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