Southern California residents know that earthquakes come without warning. But researchers at the California Institute of Technology and U.S. Geological Survey, with the help of Southern California Edison (SCE), are developing a state of the art earthquake detection system to change that.

This new Early Earthquake Warning Project will provide seismologists several seconds of warning — and in some cases tens of seconds — that an earthquake is about to occur.

This relationship between SCE, Caltech and the U.S. Geological Survey dates back to 1997 when a team of scientists installed earthquake detection devices at five remote SCE substations and service centers. Buried beneath the ground, these sensors transmit information back to Caltech when quakes occur. Over time, 25 more devices were added to SCE locations.

Now Caltech, with the assistance of SCE, will be installing 28 new solar powered sensors in 2014. Caltech and the U.S. Geological Survey have plans with UC Berkeley to expand the system across California. 

“I’m very excited that Caltech selected Edison to participate in this research,” said Kevin Payne, SCE vice president of Engineering & Technical Services. “Public safety is of primary importance to our company and this is an innovative way that we can use our system to help Californians prepare for the next big quake.”

SCE’s network of substations convert high voltage transmission lines into a distribution network that feeds businesses and homes across Southern California. These substations are located throughout SCE’s 50,000-square-mile service territory and are ideal sites for the seismic equipment.

While located at SCE locations, Caltech’s devices operate independently of the electric infrastructure.  The utility is benefitting from the data provided by these sensors by having real-time information of the magnitude and location of earthquakes.

"Working with SCE on the project has enabled us to access some of the most seismically active areas in Southern California and leverage Edison’s in-house engineering expertise," said Dr. Egill Hauksson, seismologist at Caltech.

The new detection system is already showing success. In March, Caltech was warned of a small tremor in Riverside 30 seconds before feeling its effects at their Pasadena facility. Even a few seconds of warning can give first responders and utilities like SCE time to prepare for the potentially devastating effects of an earthquake.