New Madrid Fault: A look at early earthquake warning - WSIL-TV 3 Southern Illinois

New Madrid Fault: A look at early earthquake warning

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WSIL -- We're all familiar with warnings for weather, but what about earthquakes? It's a natural disaster that's much more damaging and wide reaching with a storied history in our area.

Scientists estimate the probability of a magnitude 6.0 earthquake along the New Madrid Fault in the next 50 years at 28-46 percent. The largest earthquake in the last century along the New Madrid Fault measured 5.4 in 1968. There's still no way to know if, or when, an earthquake could occur, but researchers are making huge strides in developing early earthquake warning systems. 

"When we want to make a warning about an earthquake, we don't know when there is going to be an earthquake until there is one," explained Mitch Withers, a seismologist at the University of Memphis.

It may seem farfetched, but earthquake warnings are becoming a reality in other countries and even along the West Coast.

"There's a prototype system that started out in northern California and spread to southern California," said Withers. "Now there's an effort by the USGS to implement that system on the entire West Coast."

Here's how it works. Once an earthquake is detected, the signal is sent out, arriving faster than the earthquake's waves can move. This allows areas further away from the quake's epicenter to get a longer warning.

The system works well in places like Mexico City, where most of the earthquakes occur in southern Mexico, a long distance from the city. 

Would the system work here?

"It may not help people in Dyersburg very much, but we might be able to give a few tens of seconds of warning to Memphis and St. Louis, and southern Indiana," explained Withers. 

While the technology exists, the warning system may still be years away in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Just like many things, it's time and money standing in the way of making it reality.

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