No More Surprise Visits from Earthquake
New technology to predict the onset of earthquake

We all love surprise visits from our loved ones, don’t we? What if that surprise visit comes from a disaster named earthquake? For eons, earthquakes have given us surprises that none of us have liked. Well, I have good news for you.  Scientists in Iceland have fruitfully developed a technology to study seismic activity that can predict earthquakes.

By using the existing fiber-optic communication cable it will be easier to sense even the slightest vibration. These cables are currently being used worldwide beneath the ground for providing television and internet service. Although, this technique has proven effective, it is not ready for common use.

This technology links succession rate of earthquakes with smart phone apps and other seismic activity detection hardware. This study was accomplished in the volcanic area of Reykjanes, Iceland.

How does it work?

Earthquake activities are generally monitored by seismometers i.e. expensive and carefully calibrated devices that are placed at earthquake prone regions or regions that are sensitive to such activities. A laser pulse is sent down the fiber of the cable to determine any disturbance along its length.

Dr. Philip Jousset from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences led the research team. The technique used 15 km long optic fiber-optic cable that was initially planted between two geothermal power plants in Iceland in 1994. At first, the researchers were uncertain about the findings, but after a while they were able to detect earthquakes from far away.

When the cable along with the ground were subjected to compression or were stretched, the team recorded it.  They also sensed pedestrian walking, seismic shaking, local traffic and signals from strong earthquake in Indonesia!!! This certainly proves that the technique is effective and almost as good as seismometer.

Researchers are working on cost-effective substitutes as the machine that is to be attached to the cables for monitoring is high-priced. In case if researchers are able to find cost effective alternatives then there is no stopping for this method to replace the expensive seismic networks.

This methodology is already being used in countries like Mexico and Japan where it warns the local population when an earthquake starts. Further refinement of this technique can aid in averting major destruction in areas like San Andreas which harbors the risk of affecting a large population, says Dr. Elizabeth Cochran, a geophysicist working with United States Geological Survey (USGS).

“For early warning we don’t necessarily need highly precise information… we just need to know that large ground motions are occurring in an area. There are thousands of kilometers of cables already criss-crossing cities. So, if we can tap into these cables and figure out how to interpret data precisely, then there is a very exciting potential for very dense sensor networks everywhere that there are cables”, said Dr. Cochran in her interview with BBC News.

Additional challenges

There will be additional challenges inclusive of refining the technology.

Ultimately, everything will be dependent on the eagerness of the companies to understand the concept, and allow the access of their cables at nominal or no cost. Companies in Europe are more open to the idea than the companies in United States which have lent access to their cables for a limited period but may charge for extended period.

Since the possibilities are growing, the prices are going down and the technique will be operational in few years.

The scientists are planning to test the technology’s potential for monitoring volcanic activity in the near future.