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New Technology Fuels Post-Northridge Earthquake Scientific Advances

After the '94 earthquake, scientists, engineers and planners have come together to update the practice of earthquake engineering and risk mitigation.

Patch file photo
Patch file photo

By City News Service

Twenty years ago, it took weeks to compile the seismic data on the Northridge earthquake -- today such technical reports are compiled on computers and relayed to smartphones within minutes, a seismologist said Thursday.

That is just one of many scientific advances since the devastating Northridge quake hit before dawn on Jan. 17, 1994, leaving 57 dead, thousands injured, and causing more than $20 billion in direct damage. The quake was centered in the north-central San Fernando Valley.

In the subsequent decades, scientists, engineers and planners have come together to update the practice of earthquake engineering and risk mitigation in the Southland.

Collaboration between these groups "leads us to better quake forecasts," said Dr. Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center.

But earthquake prediction is ultimately still a game of probability, Jordan said during "20 Years After Northridge, How Has Earthquake Science Advanced?" a media briefing at USC.

During the event, scientists introduced maps showing the expansion of instrumentation networks in Southern California; maps and animations of known faults in 1994 compared to known faults today; and graphics showing improvements in earthquake forecasts over the past 20 years.

There is still no way to predict a quake, although computer networks can now detect even the slightest tremor on a fault line.

Scientists have devised a prototype of an early warning system, said Dr. Lucy Jones, a risk reduction advisor with the U.S. Geological Survey.

"We have developed the science that enables us to go forward," she said, suggesting that even a few seconds' warning can make a difference.

Other advances in earthquake science since 1994 include the expansion of the Southland's seismic network that records, measures and detects quake activity.

The region contains numerous active faults, "and in the future we'll have large earthquakes in them," Jordan said, adding that scientists have been able to map previously unknown potential problem areas.

The Northridge fault -- a subsidiary of the San Andreas fault -- previously was unknown to seismologists, Jordan said.

Jones described the pre-Internet era as a kind of technological Stone Age where scientists could not download information from computers tracking the Northridge quake for two hours because the machines were so busy taking in data. Today, it takes minutes to download real-time data.

"It's a big contrast," she said.

Also on the panel, Kate Long, the earthquake program manager with the state governor's Office of Emergency Services, recalled having to rely on "windshield surveys" of damage caused by the Northridge quake.

Such surveys were done by police and fire officials who were driving throughout areas of the city that had suffered damage.

Such information is collected today within minutes of a disaster, Long said.

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