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Laptops could be key to an earthquake early-warning system

Seismologists envision a 'Quake Catchers' network of volunteers using their computers to precisely map tremors.

March 11, 2010|By Cara Mia DiMassa

If Elizabeth Cochran allowed herself to dream, the future would look something like this:

Every personal computer would double as a seismic monitor. That MacBook at the coffee house, the one used by the guy pounding out a screenplay? Working to detect ground tremors while its user sips a latte. The aging PC gathering dust in the guest room? Ready to catch the next quake.

If Cochran, an earth scientist at UC Riverside, has her way, every time the ground beneath us shakes, those machines would capture its movement and feed the information to a central computer system, creating a rich -- and inexpensive -- portrait of how and where an earthquake is felt.

Such a network could dramatically boost our understanding of earthquakes -- and bring researchers a step closer to an earthquake early-warning system that could give emergency officials vital seconds of preparation as a catastrophic temblor moved through the region.

By harnessing the power of accelerometers -- tiny devices that detect movement, allowing iPhones to flip from vertical to horizontal and Wii devices to function as tennis rackets -- Cochran and her colleagues at Riverside and at Stanford University have begun to build a system that links ordinary computers into a seismic network.

Ideally, Cochran said, "we would have seismometers in every building, or at least on every block. And in tall buildings, we'd have multiple sensors [on different floors]. That way, we would be able to actually get much higher detail, images of how the ground shakes during an earthquake."

Until a few years ago, most of the research Cochran conducted about ground shaking required grueling field work: digging deep trenches into the earth to install sensors along a fault zone. Installing a simple program on a computer, she said with a laugh, "is quite a bit easier."

And a lot cheaper. Some newer laptops have accelerometers built in. For computers that don't, it's fairly easy to install a $50 sensor with a USB cable that measures movement in much the same way as an accelerometer.

Cochran got the idea for the network from a computer program on a friend's MacBook. The program, called Seismac, allows people to shake their MacBook and get readings from the computer's accelerometer. The program is designed for fun -- but Cochran immediately wondered how it could be used to measure earthquakes.

She talked to colleague Jesse Lawrence about transmitting readings from laptop accelerometers into a database. Lawrence, she said, "was like, 'That's the coolest thing I have ever heard.' " So they created a program that would record quake movements and feed the data to a network.

Already, 1,000 people have signed up to be "Quake Catchers," the name given to the amateur seismologists who use their computers to track earth movement. Cochran and her colleagues are trying to push the Quake Catchers' membership toward 10,000. They dream of blanketing California and beyond.

If a temblor struck, say, along the San Andreas fault near the Salton Sea, it would first be felt by a couple of laptops positioned around Palm Desert. Seconds later, a high school science classroom in San Jacinto would record the waves. As the quake traveled, it would trigger sensors at the music library at UC Riverside, a home office in Pomona and eventually, a fifth-grade classroom in El Monte. At every point, the Quake Catchers' computers would send information on the quake's size and scope to a computer system monitored by seismologists.

In the event of a huge quake, the network could potentially give areas miles away from the epicenter a few seconds of warning. Shock waves from a quake move quickly through the ground, but electronic signals are far faster, allowing warnings to outrun temblors.

Such notification might allow emergency officials in Ventura to shut off gas and water lines, stop trains and raise fire station doors immediately after a quake hits in the Salton Sea.

Cochran is part scientist and part saleswoman as she crisscrosses the state to persuade people to become Quake Catchers.

She's attended science teachers' meetings. She and her team trolled scientific online bulletin boards, trying to talk fellow scientists and students into becoming quake catchers. Cochran also takes her tour into the classroom.

On a recent Wednesday morning, she stood in front of Lezlie Sheskey's second-grade class at Pachappa Elementary School in Riverside. Dressed in a white blazer and jeans, Cochran, 31, was flanked by graduate students. She is an assistant professor with a weighty doctorate in geophysics and space physics from UCLA, and when she spoke, her deep passion for her subject became clear. As she looked at the row of desks and started talking about tectonic plates, her eyes lighted up, her hands moved quickly to emphasize a point and a smile spread across her face.

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