Israel Launches Earthquake Alert System Giving Up to 30 Precious Seconds of Warning

Israel's Truaa system can give people in quake-vulnerable areas precious seconds to save their lives before the destruction waves hit their city

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Hila Navon demonstrating the earthquake alert system at the Truaa command center in Jerusalem.
Hila Navon demonstrating the earthquake alert system at the Truaa command center in Jerusalem.Credit: David Weill / GPO
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Israel is riddled with geological faults and is constantly rocked by earthquakes. Most are too small to notice. Yet a timely alert that a major quake is in progress can make the difference between being crushed inside a collapsing building or running outside, or at least sheltering under a table.

On Monday, Israel formally launched the long-promised nationwide Truaa (“trumpet blast”) Early Earthquake Warning System.

Truaa is not predictive. Neither it nor any other technology can warn that a quake will happen in the future. We cannot predict earthquake: not location, not intensity, nothing.

What Truaa does is to warn that a quake is happening now. Unless the people are right on top of the epicenter, they will have a precious number of seconds to protect themselves.

The sound of TruaaCredit: Geological Survey, Energy Ministry, YouTube

How many seconds? For instance, if the system detects a quake in the north Dead Sea, people in Jerusalem will have about 3 seconds to react but in Tel Aviv they’ll have 18 seconds and in Haifa 30 seconds, seismologist Ittai Kurzon explains.

If the quake is in the Beit She’an valley, locals will have no warning time but Tel Avivians will have about 19 seconds, and Haifa dwellers and Jerusalemites about 20 seconds, Kurzon says.

What should you do if the quake alert wails? The Geological Survey of Israel refers queries about that to the Home Front Command online portal, which has all the information. However, Kurzon explains that, essentially, if you are inside a building, run outside. If you cannot run outside, run into the mamad – safe room-cum-bomb shelter – but leave the door open (unlike during a missile attack). If you cannot run outside and there is no mamad, take shelter under a sturdy piece of furniture such as a table or desk, which will hopefully protect you from falling debris.

Registering quake activity at the Geological Survey.Credit: Ruth Schuster

Waves of destruction

Though the brainchild and baby of the Geological Survey (which is an arm of the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry), Truaa alerts are sent out by the Home Front Command (Pikud Ha’oref). To get the alerts, you must download the Home Front Command app onto your phone.

Since the Home Front Command also issues missile alerts, that begs the question of how a quake alert differs from a missile warning. Both feature a siren sound, but the quake alert is accompanied by the clearly enunciated phrase “reidat adama” – earthquake.

The Truaa system is based on about 120 sensors, according to the Geological Survey, which are deployed throughout the country but most densely in seismically active areas: the Dead Sea Transform and the Yagur fault (aka the Mount Carmel fault). Yagur runs along the northeastern side of the Carmel “mountain range” (the Himalayas, this is not) and continues about 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, into the Mediterranean Sea. It is the chief source of seismic risk to the northern coastal and inner cities, including Haifa, “the krayot,” Kiryat Tivon and Yokne’am.

That said, everybody in Israel is at risk from quake, stresses Prof. Zohar Gvirtzman, a tectonics expert at the Geological Survey.

“Israel experiences a powerful earthquake about every hundred years. The last one was in 1927,” he said at a press conference convened to present Truaa. Most homes and many towers in Israel were constructed before building to earthquake codes became mandatory, and no area is considered safe from quake.

The damage caused to a building in Tiberias following an earthquake in northern Israel.Credit: Gil Eliahu

In any case, he qualifies: Truaa is not designed to substitute for quake-resistant construction. It’s designed to give you a chance to save yourself from the waves of destruction if the building you are in is not up to code.

Developing Truaa cost about 45 million shekels ($14 million), Gvirtzman estimates – a fraction of the cost that a major quake will cause, which isn’t a matter of if but when. Maintenance costs another 13 to 14 million shekels a year, again peanuts relative to the price tag of disaster.

Destruction in Jerusalem

The reason Israel is so vulnerable is that it sits smack on what used to be called the Great Rift Valley and is now understood to be a series of contiguous faults about 7,000 kilometers in length all told.

The Dead Sea and Sea of Galilee formed in the section of that giant crack called the Dead Sea Transform, which is actually a series of active faults between the African Plate and the Arabian Plate.

The biblical site of Megiddo, where quake damage was found.Credit: Sarit Palachi Miara

Actually, the African and Arabian plates move in more or less the same direction, but unfortunately are doing so at different speeds. The Arabian Plate is moving faster than the African one, and one result is quakes. Some of them are big – 7 and more in magnitude.

The Bible has many mentions of memorable earthquakes. Archaeologists have found persuasive evidence of disastrous temblors, and geologists have found ample evidence of ones before recorded history. While tsunamis did hit Israel during biblical times, paleo-tsunami experts have deduced, there is no mention of them in Scripture – possibly because potential witnesses on the coast would have drowned. But the quakes did not go unnoticed in Iron Age Israel...

“The words of Amos, who was among the herdmen of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1).

In Zechariah 14:5 we find mention of the same incident: “Ye shall flee, like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.”

Ezekiel for one thought he had an explanation for the geological violence: a vexed deity. “For in My jealousy and in the fire of My wrath have I spoken: Surely in that day there shall be a great shaking in the land of Israel” (Ezekiel 38:19).

The biblical city of Hazor, which had been destroyed by a quakeCredit: Gil Eliahu

Rather later, the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus wrote in his usual dramatic style about the very same quake, which must have been quite a monster to leave behind such mental scars in so many scribes.

Moving on to today, scholars agree that the earthquake mentioned in the books of Amos, Zechariah and Ezekiel was in about 760 B.C.E., and that it left destruction layers from Jerusalem to Beit She’an.

In 2020, geologists reported that, actually, there wasn’t one quake in the eighth century B.C.E. Israel: there were two.

Anyway, among the evidence of the destruction cited is a 4-meter-thick wall that fell onto its side at about that time; no human hand could do this. Massive damage to ancient towns from Tel Dan in the north to Tel Abu Hawam in Haifa Bay to Megiddo shows damage typical of earthquake, not enemy ire.

At Megiddo, Shmuel Marco and Israel Finkelstein found “tilted walls and pillars, bent and warped walls, fractured building stones, dipping floors, liquefied sand, mudbrick collapse and burnt remains.”

Hebrew University’s Amotz Agnon has noted that some of this damage could not possibly have been caused using the biblical-era toolkit, so human agency did not cause these destruction layers.

In times of antiquity, one would blame the local deity, or rather the local people for peeving the local deity. Psalm 29, ostensibly written by the legendary King David – but who knows – does so explicitly: “The voice of the Lord causes the desert to quake; the Lord causes the desert of Kadesh to quake.” Psalm 75 adds: “The earth and all the inhabitants thereof are dissolved: I bear up the pillars of it. Selah.”

That is the King James version; more modern translations suggest it explicitly refers to earthquake: “When the earth quakes and its people live in turmoil, I am the one who keeps its foundations firm” (New Living Translation).

Reacting fast, not accurately

Today, we know the culprit isn’t God or misbehaving Jews but the movement of continental plates, and we have also recently learned that these plates are constantly moving. California is estimated to experience a quake every 3 minutes – most of them are micro-quakes that go unnoticed, but it works out to about 3 million quakes per decade.

The Geological Survey does not have a comparable figure for Israel but confirms that we get a lot of quakes, most of which go unnoticed except by sensitive technology.

No, Truaa has no false positives, Kurzon reassures. Yes, the sensors can detect big bangs like explosions, but they have completely different signatures and the system does not get confused.

Naturally, it does not alert the whole country every time a mouse sneezes on a fault.

The roughly 120 sensors are continually monitored in real time at the Geological Survey offices in Jerusalem. If the quake is big enough to warrant attention, the alert goes out through the Home Front Command app to the relevant areas, not to every Israeli. The bigger the quake, the wider the circle potentially affected and the more people are alerted, Kurzon explains.

It is important to note that, generally, a quake begins with a “P wave” (compressional wave), which travels fast. It is on the basis of this wave that an alert is created. But that P wave is followed by secondary S (shear) waves, which are slower but may be more destructive.

In short, the P wave provides a generalization of the quake and the S waves augment the accuracy. The quake alert is updated as necessary, the seismologists explain. For instance, if they realize it’s bigger than initially thought, they would widen the circle of messaging.

So, the control center decides within seconds of the quake starting whether and how far to send the alert, and may amend that as the quake progresses. Any alert above a magnitude of 6 (may cause a lot of damage in very populated areas) is sent nationwide.

True, the alert is not effective for people living right by the epicenter. By the time the control center in Jerusalem has command of the facts, they already know what happened. But 100 kilometers away, the people may have as much as 30 seconds to run out or take shelter.

“We have to balance the uncertainty in the first seconds with the need to provide a fast warning,” explains seismologist Ran Nof: Truaa prioritizes speed over accuracy and corrects the alerts as needed.

All this means you may feel the ground tremble beneath your feet and get no alert because you’re quite near the epicenter and it isn’t strong enough to warrant a warning. Or, you may get an alert and notice nothing. The sensation in two buildings next to one another may be profoundly different depending on building materials, the soil beneath and more, Nof points out.

At the end of the day, Truaa can warn you that a quake is in progress. Much like wearing masks to avoid spreading COVID, the science is in. What you do next when the neighbor sneezes or the Home Front Command app wails “Reidat adama” is up to you.

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