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Japan gets extra seconds to brace for quakes

by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) Oct 1, 2007
Shunsuke Kobayashi's mind blanked for a couple of seconds as a quake alarm rang through the house, making him freeze on the spot before he came to his senses and dived under a table.

"Quake of magnitude 6.5 to hit in 15 seconds: 10, nine, eight, seven...," a calm female voice announced until the sound of crashing furniture and splitting glass filled the room.

While Japan is used to frequent earthquakes, Kobayashi, a soldier, was only taking part in a mock trial in a specially-designed house.

He was testing the world's first earthquake early warning system, which will be launched in Japan on Monday, giving public utilities and concerned citizens a few seconds advance notice before a tremor strikes.

The threat was underlined on the first day of operation as a tremor measuring 4.9 on the Richter scale struck just south of Tokyo, swaying buildings in the capital in the early morning.

The warning system designed by the Japan Meteorological Agency certainly gives only limited time. In the drill, Kobayashi was barely able to throw himself under the table, burying a cushion over his head.

"I'm used to small quakes but haven't done any drills or discussed with my family what to do in case there is a big one. Taken by surprise like that I wouldn't automatically know where to hide," the 37-year-old admitted.

Japan is home to 20 percent of the world's major quakes. A 6.8 Richter-scale tremor in July killed 11 people and halted operations at the world's largest nuclear plant.

Tokyo and other major cities live in constant fear of the "Big One" which could strike at any time.

For the time being, the main users of the early warnings will be public utilities such as power stations and railway companies, which will automatically shut down.

But companies are rushing to develop products that would receive the alert, ranging from television cable companies to house constructors to cell phone companies.

When an earthquake occurs, it sends two types of seismic waves: a fast primary wave that arrives at the seismic station before a secondary wave.

The weather agency's computer analyses data received from the thousand seismic centres across the country and determines the time span until the quake hits the surface.

Sanyo Homes Co, the housing construction division of electronics giant Sanyo Co which constructed the mock house for the trial, is the first in the industry to construct a building fully equipped with the warning system.

"If you have this system, you can stop activity that can prove to be dangerous during a quake, like cooking or even passing a thread through a needle," said Akihiro Hosoi, manager of Sanyo Homes.

Once the quake warning hits receptors in the house, lights automatically go on, stoves in the kitchen go off and electronic shutters and blinds fall in order to prevent shattered glass from spilling into the house.

"Every detail is considered thoroughly. Each second is precious," said Hosoi, whose company spent nearly five years developing this house.

Kimiro Meguro, a specialist in disaster management at the University of Tokyo, said that 90 percent of people can be saved if they have just 10 seconds and know what to do.

Some have voiced concern that the system can be counterproductive, producing more panic. But Meguro stressed the importance of people being prepared.

"To react quickly and correctly to the alerts, the people who receive them must know and understand the principle of the system," Meguro told AFP.

Sanyo's Hosoi said families had to have dinner-table conversations discussing what to do and where to hide when a quake strikes.

Koichi Suzuki, 37, said that living with a year-old son, wife, and his two parents makes his awareness for quakes is high.

"I think it is very important to have this kind of system. Before, we only knew that a quake occurred only after it struck, with all the damage. We had limited preparation," said the company employee living in Kawasaki, near Tokyo.

"Even if we Japanese think we are used to earthquakes, we still fear them. And I want to be prepared for the 'Big One'," he said.

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GMES Space Program Reaches Important Development Milestone
Paris, France (ESA) Oct 01, 2007
Yesterday ESA's Member States participating in the GMES Program approved the transition to Phase-2 of Segment 1 of the GMES Space Component Program. Oversubscription of the program by the ESA Council at ministerial level in 2005 was confirmed, with oversubscription to phase 2 of 116%, giving a total amount of 500 million euros. This additional contribution to the program will allow ESA to confirm the development of the first three Sentinel satellites.

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