Earthquake system faces budget woes

The U.S. Geological Survey, together with the California Institute of Technology and the state of California, have begun building a first-of-its-kind computer system that will warn Southern Californians of impending earthquakes while at the same time broaden seismologists' understanding of the phenomenon.

But the system, called TriNet, is threatened by budget tightening in Congress and in California, project officials say.

Creators of the system envision TriNet as a network of 600 digital stations scattered throughout Southern California, replacing and adding to the 400 or so analog stations that USGS and California now operate.

The digital stations will give a "higher-fidelity recording" than analog stations, according to Jim Mori, the scientist in charge of USGS' Pasadena, Calif., office.

Analog stations either measure small or large earthquakes, but not both. Large earthquakes overwhelm the sensitive analog scales needed to measure small earthquakes, and minor earthquakes do not trigger the scales that are calibrated for the more damaging tremblers.

Digital stations, however, can measure and record the enormous range of ground movements associated with both small and large earthquakes, allowing seismologists to study ground movements in greater depth and to determine whether to warn communities that are near to or hundreds of miles away from an earthquake's epicenter.

The entire process can be carried out in seconds.

"This is the next generation of seismographic systems," said Thomas Heaton, a former USGS employee and a professor of engineering seismology at Caltech. "The new equipment allows us to go after new tasks."

Besides issuing early warnings, TriNet will use census data to map where the worst damage might have occurred. The maps will reduce the time it takes to collect damage estimates from a day to just minutes.

TriNet also will collect data on the movement of the earth far below the surface and on horizontal, or side-to-side, movements, which cause the most damage to property. Current stations only measure vertical, or up-and-down, movements on the surface.

Measuring these earthquake mechanics will aid California municipalities in developing building codes that would allow buildings to better withstand earthquakes, Heaton said.

TriNet was designed after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which killed 61 people and injured 9,300, and is part of USGS' projects to issue real-time data on earthquakes. The Caltech USGS Broadcast of Earthquakes (CUBE) was recently developed to locate and measure magnitudes of earthquakes in real time.

Last month USGS and Caltech launched SeismoCam, a World Wide Web site that utilizes the Java programming language to present real-time information on earthquakes, including seismographs (see Gateway Guide, page 16).

USGS, Caltech and the state of California have installed 20 digital stations so far and plan to install another 50 in the next year, Mori said.

But funding for TriNet, which will total $15 million over three years, has dried up as USGS and California have come under increasing pressure to cut costs, thereby threatening to halt the program.

"To be blunt, if Washington, D.C., had a Northridge earthquake, this system would have been funded years ago," Heaton said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently turned down Caltech's application for $7.5 million, saying TriNet did not meet funding guidelines under its hazard and mitigation program, Heaton said. Caltech is appealing that ruling.

FEMA officials could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, Caltech is pursuing private funding through electrical and gas utilities and phone companies.

Caltech is negotiating with PacBell and GTE Corp. to fund the frame relay network, for example.

But private funding jeopardizes USGS' involvement in the project because the system would unfairly benefit those groups that could afford to purchase the necessary equipment, a USGS official said.

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