Become a quake-spotter and monitor our shaking, quaking, not-so-solid Earth

This map from the USGS shows the regions with the greatest risks for earthquakes in the United States. Source: USGS

This map from the USGS shows the regions with the greatest risks for earthquakes in the United States. Source: USGS

Almost 26 million people around the world joined the Great Shake Out today to improve earthquake readiness. Schools, hospitals, and emergency responders tested their systems and conducted drills. Families reviewed their home safety checklists and taught their kids to drop-cover-and-hold-on

But once you’ve prepared for an earthquake, what can you do the other 364 days in the year? Take a look at these amateur projects that let you take part in studying our not-so-solid Earth.

If you can't build your own, this educational seismograph will let you monitor quakes but will set you back over $600 [Amazon link]

If you can't build your own, this educational seismograph will let you monitor quakes but will set you back over $600 [Amazon link]

Personal Seismic Stations

Unlike personal weather stations, monitoring earthquakes is more of a DIY affair. The cheapest ready-made kits such as this American Educational Seismograph Model [Amazon link] are only useful for classroom demonstrations. To actually record useful seismic data, however, you must buy a higher end educational sensor like the Steiner Enterprises EQ-1 [Amazon link] or build your own.

Combine your circuit-building and mechanical skills with the maker spirit and you can build a useful seismograph for much less than a packaged product. DIY site Instructables has plans that range from a simple device that costs less than $15 to another, more sophisticated device that detects motion smaller than the width of a human hair. Europe’s Science in School program provides instructions for making a seismograph from busted stereo speakers and other scrap. The British Geological Society  explains the physics of its simple seismograph.

Shaking and Sharing

The relative ease of DIY seismographs has spawned a global community of quake-spotting enthusiasts. The Public Seismic Network began in northern California as a pre-Web bulletin board to let earthquake-enthusiasts share their sensor designs, analysis techniques, and data. The network expanded in the 1990s as schools and earthquake-enthusiasts in southern California, then the rest of America built their own seismographs. Amateurs in Australia, Italy, and other earthquake-prone areas joined similar networks.

The largest community sharing earthquake data, however, are the world’s primary and secondary schools. Seismographs to let students see first hand how our planet creaks and gurgles. Science teachers use seismographs to enhance lessons in earth science and physics. When students see an earthquake on the other side of the planet as it’s happening it makes the science real in ways most classroom projects can’t. Here are just a few of the world’s educational seismology programs:

Educational seismographs, linked together through the Iris Seismographs in Schools Network, report seismic events around the world that students can compare with readings in their own classroom. Source: Iris Seismographs in Schools

Educational seismographs, linked together through the Iris Seismographs in Schools Network, report seismic events around the world that students can compare with readings in their own classroom. Source: Iris Seismographs in Schools

Besides operating the American project, the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology runs the Seismographs in Schools Network - a database that collects seismic data from hundreds of schools around the world. That lets students compare the readings from their classroom seismograph with data from other regions.

Budgets limited the USGS NetQuake network to regions prone to quakes. Source: USGS NetQuakes

Budgets limited the USGS NetQuake network to regions prone to quakes. Source: USGS NetQuakes

Sharing for a Purpose - Science!

Amateurs' next step from sharing seismic data with each other is to share data with professional seismologists. Several crowdsourcing projects let you to host a seismic sensor and become part of a professional seismic network.

Scientists at America’s USGS created the NetQuakes project to get higher resolution data about earthquakes than their sophisticated - and expensive - professional networks produce. Volunteers agree to host a seismograph at their home or business, providing electricity and an Internet connection so the sensor can upload its data to the NetQuake servers. A limited budget forced USGS to pick-and-choose among the volunteers to avoid overlapping coverage. NetQuakes now has almost 500 sensors, mostly along the west coast. Budget cuts forced USGS to stop adding locations, but the agency is still taking applications from volunteers in hopes budget priorities will change.

CalTech’s Community Seismic Network takes a similar approach, but on a smaller scale - physically and geographically. The project’s sensors are about the size of a computer mouse and its focus is on the effect of earthquakes around CalTech’s home in Pasadena, California. The scientists in this NSF-funded project want to deploy 1,000 sensors in a grid across the region to get an extremely high resolution, block-by-block snapshot of seismic waves passing through the region. [For more detail, read my article about the CSN]

The Quake Catcher Network lets anyone join - for a price. You can buy a sensor for $50. The small USB device sits on the floor next to your PC. Software running in the background monitors the sensor and sends data from any seismic even to the QCN sensors. If you happen to live in the earthquake-prone regions along the American west coast or along the New Madrid fault - or if you live around the Sea of Marmara in Turkey - you might qualify for a free sensor. The QCN has several programs for schools. Teachers only have to pay $5 for a sensor. A three-week program lets teachers borrow up to 15 sensors for classroom projects. Underserved schools can apply for free sensors.

The USGS Did You Feel It program takes public reports from around the world. Almost 400 reports arrived within 2 hours of this October 13, magnitude 7.5, earthquake in Nicaragua. Source: USGS Did You Feel It 

The USGS Did You Feel It program takes public reports from around the world. Almost 400 reports arrived within 2 hours of this October 13, magnitude 7.5, earthquake in Nicaragua. Source: USGS Did You Feel It 

Seismic data doesn't need to be digital. The longest-running crowdsourced earthquake project is the USGS Did You Feel It program. An online form lets you tell seismologists how strong the quake felt and what kind of damage it caused around you. Public reports arrive so quickly after a quake that the USGS can send maps of the even to emergency responders before data from its sensors arrive. The Did You Feel It database also gives scientists and planners valuable data as they develop ways to protect lives and property from earthquakes.

Shake, Rattle, and Tweet

The Internet and the rise of social media connects us to our friends and families instantaneously. Whenever an earthquake hits we text, tweet, and search to find out more. Seismologists are turning our spontaneous, human need to know into early warning systems to save lives.

USGS scientists now monitor Twitter after watching Japanese tweets about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake spread across the world long before the actual seismic waves reached its sensors.

European seismologists at the European-Mediterranean Seismological Center noticed that traffic to its website increases thirty-fold within minutes of an earthquake as people try to find out what happend. EMSC web administrators map the visitors’ Internet addresses to get a quick snapshot of the quake’s location, extent, and intensity as much as 10 minutes before data from its sophisticated seismic networks arrives.