'Citizen seismologists' needed for Quake Catcher network

Seismic sensors to be set up in local homes, schools and offices for Stanford-based earthquake study

Thousands of Bay Area residents are needed to set up matchbox-sized earthquake monitors in their homes, offices and classrooms to help scientists better understand the nature of quakes, a Stanford University professor has announced.

The Quake Catcher Network, which began installing the sensors in local homes last Saturday (July 9), needs "citizen seismologists" who have a computer and an Internet connection to host the monitors. The sensors, which would be located near faults with the greatest potential to produce a quake of magnitude 6.7 or greater, would be part of a massive network.

The researchers hope to install more than 500 sensors in the Bay Area this year and a total of 6,000 seismic sensors in the San Francisco Bay Area; southern California; the Pacific Northwest; Anchorage, Alaska; Salt Lake City, Utah and Memphis, Tenn.

Half of the sensors are reserved for educational institutions and are available to K-12 teachers. The program provides free educational software to help teachers demonstrate how earthquake motions are detected and monitored. The sensors are free to volunteers who are accepted into the program.

"With thousands of volunteers hosting our seismic sensors, forming dense networks in these regions, we'll be able to get data on a level of detail and with a degree of accuracy that we could only dream about before," said Jesse Lawrence, assistant professor at Stanford University's Department of Geophysics, where the project is based. The project is the brainchild of Lawrence and Elizabeth Cochran, a research geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Pasadena.

The researchers want to set up monitors along the San Andreas Fault through the Peninsula and along the Hayward Fault, which runs through the East Bay. The Hayward is considered most likely to cause a major earthquake in the Bay Area in the next 30 years, according to researchers.

The sensors will send data to the project's server while an earthquake is occurring.

Eventually, a Quake Catcher mobile-phone app could be able to notify people of quakes, researchers said.

"Seismic waves travel slower than Internet traffic, so notifications could reach some participants before the seismic waves do. We are still investigating how reliable and accurate this process will be," Cochran said.

The network will help understand how the shaking that causes most of the damage radiates from the epicenter of the earthquake and how the impact of earthquakes might be lessened, said Richard Allen, director of the U.C. Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, which is also a research participant.

Volunteers must have a computer that is five years old or newer, runs a Windows or Macintosh operating system and has a spare USB port for the sensor. A high-speed Internet connection is needed to periodically send the data to the project's server. Participants would dedicate a Post-It-note-sized space on the floor of their home, classroom or office to mount the sensor. The software runs in the background and uses a small amount of computing power, researchers said. Priority is given to people willing to keep the computer running continuously with battery backup, the researchers said.

Researchers are asking for a commitment of at least one year but hope volunteers will host the sensors for the entire three-year project.

More than 2,000 sensors are already installed in 67 countries, including New Zealand and Chile; both nations are prone to large earthquakes. In an earlier study, older model sensors could detect a magnitude 2.6 quake at a distance of approximately 3.1 miles. The newer models used for the Bay Area study are more sensitive, researchers said.

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