Community Seismic Network maps quakes from personal earthquake sensors

Scientists at the California Institute of Technology want to map earthquakes in more detail than ever before, but they need the public’s help to do it. 

Seismologists never have enough sensors recording earthquakes as they would like. The USGS Advanced National Seismic System, for example, has a little over 2100 seismic stations to cover the nation’s 9.8 million square kilometers. It has one station in Pasadena, just outside Los Angeles. The next-closest station is almost 200 kilometers away in Palm Desert. Regional networks like the Southern California Seismic Network provide denser coverage with seismic stations separated by tens of kilometers instead of hundreds. 

Reports from the public to the Did You Feel It website lets the USGS produce maps of an earthquake's intensity, but only across large regions. Source: USGS

Reports from the public to the Did You Feel It website lets the USGS produce maps of an earthquake's intensity, but only across large regions. Source: USGS

Unfortunately, these networks only give scientists and emergency responders information about an earthquake’s regional effects. The nature of the ground an earthquake passes through and the surface conditions beneath buildings dramatically changes the quake's local effects. Data on these effects arrive after the event as the public reports their experiences to the USGS Did You Feel It service and as scientists conduct post-quake surveys. 

But these reports don’t give scientists direct, local measurements of the quake itself. Getting that data requires a much denser network of sensors than any government agency can afford. The cost of leasing land, maintaining sensors, and providing power and communications adds up quickly as you add more stations to a network. The USGS, for example, was supposed to take 5 years and $170 million to build the 7,000-station ANSS by 2004, but the agency’s budgets over the past 2 decades have only let it build about a third of the total.

[Professionals in other fields face the same challenge. To see how the many ways the public helps, check out my articles on personal weather stations, weather spotters, and cosmic ray observatories.]

Scientists at CalTech’s Seismological Laboratory turned to crowdsourcing as a way to collect high-resolution data while an earthquake is happening. Crowdsourcing lets the public contribute their own resources to a project on a scale that their lack of expertise doesn't matter. The Galaxy Zoo project, for example, tapped into people’s free time and pattern-recognition skills to collect several hundred million contributions that astronomers used to create a catalog of 900,000 galaxies. The MilkyWay@Home project taps into the unused processing power of thousands of personal computers to create simulations of our galaxy and map its dark matter.

CalTech’s Community Seismic Network lets the public connect seismic sensors to their home Internet connections. The low-cost sensors, which the CSN provides free of charge, are simple enough for the volunteer to install themselves. They stick the sensor to the floor with double-sided tape and use a USB cable to connect the sensor to their personal computer. A small app collects data from the sensor and passes it on to the CSN’s servers.

The Community Seismic Network's live map shows sensor reports of shaking. To protect volunteers' privacy, the sensor's data only appears at the block level. Source: CalTech/Community Seismic Network

The Community Seismic Network's live map shows sensor reports of shaking. To protect volunteers' privacy, the sensor's data only appears at the block level. Source: CalTech/Community Seismic Network

While the sensors aren’t as sophisticated as those in the ANSS, the CSN makes up for it in numbers. Grants from the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, will let the CSN deploy 1,000 sensors around CalTech’s hometown of Pasadena, California. A network of simple sensors spaced 400 meters apart lets the CSN record detailed measurements of earthquakes in progress.

The Community Seismic Network’s high resolution data will let the project’s scientists create block-by-block shake maps of the Pasadena area as an earthquake happens. Over time, these maps will let city planners set policies that reduce the risk of earthquake damage in areas of Pasadena that experience the strongest shaking. In the short term, the CSN’s shake maps will help emergency responders. During a natural disaster, emergency responders need to go to the places they are most needed. Having detailed, block-by-block information on where a quake was strongest lets them get to the right areas faster and save lives.

The scale that professional-amateur collaboration makes possible is one of the larger themes of amateur space exploration. Whether we explore the distant universe or the tectonic forces acting on the planet beneath our feet, our small contributions to professional projects combine to create something the pros could never do on their own. If you live in the Pasadena area, sign up for the Community Seismic Network and help keep you and your neighbors safe. If you don’t live in Pasadena, consider hosting a seismic sensor from the USGS NetQuakes program or the Quake Catchers Network.

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