lizabeth Cochran was sitting in her office when her computer suddenly sounded an alarm.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
A map of California on her screen lit up with a red dot, signaling an earthquake had struck. A clock next to the map counted down the seconds until shock waves fanning out from the epicenter north of Los Angeles reached her location in Pasadena: 5-4-3-2-1.
Right on cue, Cochran felt her chair quiver ever so slightly from a magnitude-4.2 that rumbled through Southern California on Sept. 1.
“If I hadn’t known it was an earthquake, I would have thought it was a truck going by,” she said.
After years of lagging behind Japan, Mexico and other quake-prone countries, the U.S. government has been quietly testing an earthquake early warning system in California since February. Cochran belongs to an exclusive club of scientists who receive a heads up every time the state shakes.
The alert system is still crude and messages are not yet broadcast to residents or businesses.
With more testing and funding, researchers hope to build a public warning system similar to the Japanese that has been credited with saving lives during the March 11 magnitude-9 disaster.