3 Frontiers in Earthquake Tech to Aid China—and Help the U.S.

An article in Popular Mechanics discusses new technologies which may help in the science of earthquake prediction and preparation:

In province, the danger was clear. A magnitude 7.5 earthquake hit the region in 1933, killing more than 9000 people, and geologists have detected smaller events with relative frequency. “We estimated the seismic hazard and risk for that region,” says Kaye Shedlock, who worked with China when she headed the USGS’s hazard and risk program. “It’s riddled with large faults, to accommodate that sort of motion. It moves more often than our San Andreas fault.” Compared to some areas that might expect an interval of a century or more between major , then, the Sichuan Basin is an extremely active spot. Unfortunately, it also appears to lack the level of monitoring required for accurate forecasting. “In the sliding scale of where you put your resources,” Shedlock says, “that’s an area where it’s difficult to monitor—difficult to get to, because of the mountains—and it’s less populated than other vulnerable cities, like Beijing.”

The key to forecasting is data, which means a comprehensive, unified monitoring system, which is what Shedlock is trying to provide for North America. She’s the program director for EarthScope, a National Science Foundation–funded effort to install thousands of sensors throughout the continent. The instruments range from portable seismometers to clusters of stationary GPS receivers deployed along known fault lines. With all of EarthScope’s data freely available online, Shedlock hopes to improve our understanding of the continent’s seismic activity—and improve the state of the art of forecasting. More sensors and better analysis could narrow the window for specific threats, and provide more accurate damage estimates and long-term warnings. Ultimately, more data can only be gathered by a larger, more sophisticated network of sensors. Most of the sensors in the U.S. are currently gathered in the western part of the country, while Shedlock expects China to eventually develop its own unified system. But for now, population density remains paramount there, which means Beijing is heavily monitored, while rural areas, such as Sichuan province, remain in the dark.


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