Visitors at a memorial near the epicenter of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Photo: Reuters

Chinese seismologists are claiming the nation’s earthquake early warning system is the “fastest in the world,” saying that by utilizing artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies, the system is capable of sending out warnings to residents about 6.2 seconds after a destructive tremor occurs so people nearby can brace themselves.

The Global Times quoted a technician with a Chengdu-based earthquake early warning research institute as saying that the average response time of such a system in trials in the city would be 6.2 seconds, about 30% quicker than similar systems in Japan, which need about nine seconds.

Geologists say electromagnetic waves travel faster than seismic waves, meaning people in areas other than the epicenter can use the time difference to determine if a big hit is imminent and seek shelter immediately.

Chengdu is the capital of western Sichuan province, which was jolted by a devastating 8.2-magnitude earthquake on May 12, 2008, in which about 70,000 people perished.

The technician told the paper if such an early warning system had been in place 11 years ago, the death toll could have been reduced by as much as a third.

This is because studies suggest that a three-second early warning time can reduce casualties by 14% and a 10-second early warning time can reduce them by 39%.

The paper also noted that China’s early warning system in trials would also be the largest of its kind worldwide, encompassing 31 provinces, 2.2 million square kilometers of land that is home to about 660 million people, or 90% of China’s densely-populated, seismically unstable areas.

The system reportedly relies on underground sensors that can detect stress and energy dynamics eight to 20 kilometers below the surface. But the paper did not go into details about whether there were any false warnings, noting only that artificial intelligence had been in use to identify seismic waveforms to reduce false alarms.

Since its deployment and trial in 2013, the system has monitored about 50 earthquakes, big and small, including the 7.0-magnitude quake in Lushan, Sichuan in 2013 and the 6.5-magnitude quake in Ludian in southwestern Yunnan province in 2014. The system dispatched warnings promptly, via mobile phone messages, TV and radio networks and social networking apps.

Earthquake prediction remains a largely inexact science, however.

Still, China claimed back in 1975 that its scientists successfully predicted a 7.3-magnitude quake that struck Haicheng, in northeastern Liaoning province, on February 2 that year. Years of study of seismic data and activities in the region led Beijing to issue a medium-term prediction in June, 1974, and ordered the forced evacuation of residents there.

The powerful quake, striking at 19:36 that day, reportedly caused a death toll of less than 300 in an area with a population of about 1.6 million.

Read more: Taiwan to speed up earthquake alerts

Leave a comment