|Seismic record from the Guerrero April 18 earthquake|
A magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck in the Acapulco/Mexico City region early this morning, a Good Friday holiday morning when many residents had apparently slept in or gone away on vacation. The earthquake lasted about 30 seconds. The epicenter was in the state of Guerrero, north of Acapulco. The U.S. Geological Survey has an automatic damage estimator here. The USGS estimates deaths between 1-100, and economic losses between 1-100 million; Max Wyss's estimator at WAPMER predicts 0-50 killed. In spite of damage reports there have been no reports (10 hours later) of fatalities, so there are likely to be very few if any as more information comes in. Why?
One reason that many buildings in the area are built to be quake-resistent because of the history of previous earthquakes. But another reason is that Mexico has an early warning system for earthquakes, and the news has reported that a warning went out about 2 minutes before the quake (I have not been able to independently verify this).
Mexico instituted a Seismic Alert System (SAS) for Mexico city as an experimental project in August 1991. By monitoring the arrival of the faster compressional ("P") waves, warnings can be issued before the arrival of the stronger shear ("S) waves. The system gives, on average, about 60 seconds warning for earthquakes generated in the Guerrero Gap. The quake was the result of a thrust motion where the Cocos plate is being subducted below the North American plate at a rate of about 65 mm/year. The Guerrero Seismic Gap is a ~200 km long segment of this plate boundary that has experienced no significant earthquakes since 1911 (M7.6 at that time). It is thought that an earthquake of magnitude greater than 8 is possible if the entire gap were to rupture at the same time.
The development of the SAS was sponsored by the Mexico City Government, beginning operation in 1991. By the end of the first year, it was experimenting with providing warning to some public elementary schools, and was opened as a public service on commercial radio stations in 1993 after a successful alert that gave 65-73 seconds advance warning during two Guerrero earthquakes (M5.8 and M6) on May 14, 1993. Extensive planning for dissemination and education for the public followed. By 1998 the SAS detected 681 seismic events, 12 of which were strong enough to trigger the general early warning signals in Mexico City, one false one, and one earthquake well detected, but not warned. In the one false alarm, phenomena that were feared--such as panic that could cause injuries--did not occur, but it was realized that many members of the public had not been trained, and training of the public remained a high priority.
The advantages of an early warning system are numerous: Casualties and fatalities are reduced by making people aware that strong ground shaking is imminent. Tsunami calculations can be initiated earlier. Traffic such as trains or subways can be stopped or slowed. The disadvantages or risks are the alerts may not be quick enough in areas close to the focus of the earthquake and subjected to strong shaking, that there can be false alarms, and that the technique is not good if there are multiple earthquakes close in time or location. Hence, there are tradeoffs between speed and accuracy. Continuous citizen education and awareness must be maintained, and a wide variety of channels of communication must be used to ensure wide dissemination. The private sector must be incorporated into the early warning system so that appropriate services/operations can be shut down for safety.