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By Sarah Robson of RNZ
Unlike other earthquake-prone countries and regions around the world, New Zealand does not have an earthquake early warning system.
Japan, Taiwan, California, and Mexico City all have them, and while each system works differently, they give people precious seconds of warning before the oncoming shake.
This is enough time for organizations to shut down dangerous equipment, for example, slow high-speed trains, or suspend hospital surgeries.
The general public may have time to protect themselves – in New Zealand, the advice is to fall, hide, trap – and this has the potential to reduce injuries and save lives.
It’s not about if, but when the next big earthquake will happen here. There is a 75 percent chance of an earthquake occurring on the Alpine Fault in the next 50 years.
It’s important to remember that early warning systems do not predict earthquakes, says Wellington-based seismologist Carolyn Holden.
Kate Sheppard apartments in Wellington with protective enclosure during last year’s earthquake repairs. Photo/Mark Mitchell, file
“We are not expecting the earthquake, the earthquake has already happened.”
Sensors detect when the earthquake began, which then triggers the alert system.
Depending on where you set the vibration threshold, an alert will be sent to people who are likely to feel it.
If you are close to where you feel the vibration most, you may receive a warning for five or 10 seconds. Far away, where you might feel lighter shivering, you might get 30 seconds, or even a minute.
It’s not that long, so Massey University social psychologist Lauren Fennell says it’s critical for people to know what to do if they get an alert.
“If people already knew what they should do to protect themselves in the event of an earthquake, whether or not there was a warning, and if they practiced that behavior, it would save them time when addressing that alert.”
Engineers drilled a kilometer into an alpine fault near Franz Josef in 2014. Photo/Provide, File
There is an appetite for an earthquake early warning system, Fennell says, with research in 2019 showing that 97 percent of people surveyed thought it would be beneficial or somewhat beneficial.
The public will also need to understand that the early warning system will not be accurate all the time – there may be false alarms, or it may even mistake earthquakes.
Explaining this when it occurs will be crucial to maintaining people’s trust in the system, Fennell says.
So far, Holden says, cost has been the biggest barrier to New Zealand in getting an earthquake early warning system up and running.
But the stars are starting to align: Sensor technology is becoming increasingly affordable and reliable, and authorities here have also benefited from monitoring what other countries have done.
It would cost about $50 million to upgrade the network of seismic sensors in New Zealand, Holden says. Operating the early warning system would cost about $25 million per year.
The seismometer at the base of Mount Adams in the Southern Alps is part of a network of instruments that detect movement. Graphic/GNS Science, File
But it is ultimately up to the government and relevant agencies to decide whether this investment is worth it.
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