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'Nowcasting' The Next Big Quake

It is the one fact that keeps even laid-back Californians on edge: the threat of the Big One, a major earthquake that could strike at any time with no warning.

But that may be about to change, CBS News Correspondent Drew Griffin reports. A research cooperative called Tri-Net is developing a first of its kind warning system that aims to accomplish what's been dubbed as earthquake "nowcasting." It wouldn't predict an earthquake, but could transmit information about one before it reaches distant sites.

U.S. Geological Society seismologist Lucy Jones is heading the research team of Southern California scientists. She explains, "We could potentially have a minute's warning that would be something on the order of, 'An earthquake has begun on the San Andreas fault. We estimate 70 percent damaging shaking could be arriving at your sight in 60 seconds.' "

A seemingly short window of time, but one that could be used to prevent train derailments or secure the handling of hazardous materials, to give just two examples. Jones admits, "That's only going to be useful if people thought through what needs to be done and, preferably, automated the process."

The project relies on a growing network of seismic stations. Scientists have been able to cover southern California's shaky ground with monitors, instantly feeding back any news the earth is moving. In split second time, the sensors send back news of a major quake, before the quake arrives.

Not a siren, but possibly an automated computer signal, would alert those hooked into the system that the earth is starting to move.

Los Angeles could receive as much as a minute-and-a-half warning if the long-predicted big one did strike. Scientists think it'll start at the San Andreas fault, a 650-mile long fracture that has the ability to produce a monster 8.0 quake. In the very near future, scientists could send the signal to get ready if the fracture begins to slip.

To emergency managers like Los Angeles' Ellis Stanley, that information would be priceless. "If we had 20-30 seconds warning, we could wire it into elevators so they could get to the next floor, stop and people could get off. Kids could actually get under a desk in a school with a few seconds warning."

Of course, there are probably only one or two earthquakes a century that could employ the technology. "The point here is that the same information, on different time scales, is the information we need to learn to live with earthquakes," Jones explains.

The prototype system could be up and running in Southern California by the end of next year, paving the way for similar warning systems around the country.