Moments to spare

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Science  02 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6414, pp. 514-517
DOI: 10.1126/science.362.6414.514

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This fall, the U.S. Geological Survey released ShakeAlert, its earthquake early warning system for the West Coast. If all goes as planned, a dense network of seismometers in California, Oregon, and Washington will detect the first, weak waves of an earthquake and relay a rapid warning of ground shaking to come. To start, those warnings will go to first responders, power companies, and transit agencies. In the next couple of years, alerts could roll out to the public to provide at least a few seconds of warning. But the process of developing this system also led to a humbling of scientific ambitions. The scientists developing ShakeAlert once promised it could warn of strong, violent shaking from a distant earthquake far in advance, thanks to a belief that the first few seconds of an earthquake could predict its final magnitude. Reality has intruded: Faults fracture in complex, unpredictable ways. The current incarnation of ShakeAlert might offer 10 seconds of warning for a severe event—if you're lucky. Even that is a victory.