Fault line focus: Predicting, warning when earthquakes will strike

Fault line focus: Predicting, warning when earthquakes will strike »Play Video
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- California is a state that's known for earthquakes, and Kern County has its own fault lines which have been cause for concern.

Turns out there's help coming from below and above the ground when it comes to earthquakes.

The first is NASA's uninhabited aerial vehicle synthetic aperture radar or UAVSAR. It uses RADAR to take a detailed image of the ground, like fault lines, but its power lies in how accurate it can be.

"To allow and aircraft to very precisely fly a given path and come back at a later date and fly that same path again," explained James Lee with NASA Dryden Flight Research Center.

The information from UAVSAR then gets turned over to scientists at the US Geological Survey.

"We're able to look at every square yard of the ground and see how it's moving," said USGS geophysicist Gerald Bawden.

Bawden worked with NASA when UAVSAR was sent to Haiti after the massive quake. Even though a major earthquake already happened in Haiti Bawden explained UAVSAR shows where a fault ruptured and where it could rupture next.

He added, "The likelihood of having an earthquake is in an area where we're all ready seeing earthquakes."

UAVSAR is also scanning concerning fault lines throughout Kern County.

Based on those ground scans and knowledge of the region's tectonic history, Bawden said there's no reason to panic just yet.

When it comes to the Kern River Canyon fault Bawden said, "Given the fact we have an earthquake there every once 1,000-2,000 years it's likely not that high of a chance."

According to Bawden, the ability to accurately forecast when an earthquake will strike is decades away, but being able to warn when one is coming is within reach.

UC Berkeley is developing a system that relies on hundreds of sensors called "seismometers," which are stationed along California's active faults.

The seismometers are linked to computers that analyze the initial waves of a quake and predict it's power.

The bigger the quake, the longer it takes to develop.

For example, Haiti's earthquake was magnitude 7.0 and according to UC Berkeley seismologist Peggy Hellweg, "(The earthquake) took about 30 seconds to actually happen."

Those seconds could mean the difference between life or death.

Currently, both Japan and Mexico City have earthquake warning systems in place. It's expected to be in California in about 5 years.

While it may be comforting to know that technology is making progress it looks like what's being studied is what's holding things up.

"With earthquakes everything is going on deeper in the earth and we don't have instrumentation down there to really measure what's going on," said Bawden.

Along with scanning fault lines, NASA's UAVSAR device also tracks volcanoes, glaciers and tropical forests.