Laptops Aid Researchers as Earthquake Sensors

By May 06, 2008

Researchers are developing a collaborative seismic network to detect earthquake activity in California through laptops equipped with motion sensors. The QCN project is currently in beta-stage to measure seismic activity in the

San Francisco Bay area and Greater Los Angeles area, but one day hopes to create “the worlds largest, low-cost strong-motion seismic network by utilizing sensors in and attached to Internet-connected computers.”

The goal is not to prevent earthquakes as much as detect the subtle waves and movements that can warn schools, emergency response units and others of the potential for an earthquake.

"Were not trying to predict earthquakes, we're trying to measure them very rapidly and get the information out before damage is done to large populations," said Jesse Lawrence, an earthquake seismologist at Stanford University. Lawrence and Elizabeth Cochran, an assistant professor of seismology at the University of California, Riverside are collaborators at both universities.

At this time, the network uses software that can monitor activity on Mac laptops as old as 2005 with built-in accelerometers. Accelerometers can measure a sudden increase in acceleration (such as when a laptop is dropped) and the hard drive is automatically braced for the impact. Software developed by the QCN team converts the Mac laptops into earthquake sensors and displays the data on a screensaver. At this time, software is only available for Mac computers, but a Windows version is in the works. Eventually, desktop computers outfitted with USB accelerometers will be used to contribute to the research.

According to Lawrence, the pattern of signals recorded by the server should allow the network to predict a momentous earthquake and fill in the gaps where data is not recorded by hundreds of high-tech seismometers that have been placed in and around California.

Just last month, the U.S. Geological Survey calculated that there is a 99.7 chance California will be hit by a big quake – one with a magnitude of 6.7 or higher on the Richter scale – before the year 2028.

By Kathleen Clark
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