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NetQuakes: Monitoring Earthquakes with Help from the Crowd
© Image: Kimimasa Mayama / Reuters

NetQuakes: Monitoring Earthquakes with Help from the Crowd

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates several million earthquakes occur around the world annually. While most are harmless, occasionally high-magnitude quakes cause major damage — like San Francisco’s infamous 1906 quake, which killed about 3,000 people and destroyed over 80 percent of the city.

Fortunately, earthquake monitoring and analysis have come a long way in the last few years. In 2009, the USGS and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) launched NetQuakes, distributing seismometers to volunteers in order to improve post-quake analysis. 350 of the little blue boxes are now operational in the U.S., according to Earth Magazine, with a handful of additional seismometers installed in countries like Haiti, Nepal, and Russia.

“The USGS is trying to achieve a denser and more uniform spacing of seismographs in select urban areas to provide better measurements of ground motion during earthquakes,” reads the NetQuakes webpage. “These measurements improve our ability to make rapid post-earthquake assessments of expected damage and contribute to the continuing development of engineering standards for construction.”

A typical seismic instrument, which can take a week or more to install, costs between $10,000 and $20,000. Maintaining this node in the seismic network costs the USGS about $50 a month. The digital, Wi-Fi capable seismograph developed for the NetQuakes program — roughly the size of a car battery — only costs $4,500 and can be installed in just a few hours (a technician bolts the box to a concrete floor so it can accurately record ground motion). Because these seismographs send data through volunteers’ internet, not a USGS connection, the organization saves a significant amount of money.

With NetQuakes, “we’ve doubled the number of sampling points in the Bay Area we have for shake [seismic] maps, which is really fairly significant in terms of the potential resolutions that we have,” said Jim Luetgert, a NetQuakes organizer and USGS geophysicist in Menlo Park, California.

The demand for these seismic instruments far exceeds the supply. Over 6,000 people have volunteered for the program, but the USGS only had the budget to build about 500 units, most of which are already installed. The surge of participant interest remains useful, however, because it allows the USGS a wealth of options in deciding where to allocate its remaining stock.

The USGS operates additional crowdsourcing ventures to map earthquakes and other natural disasters, including “Did You Feel It?”, which asks people to say whether they felt an earthquake at their specific location. Over 100,000 people responded after last year’s Virginia quake, creating a fairly accurate map of the tremors’ effects. The USGS has a similar program called “Did You See It?” for landslides.

The USGS hopes to add additional nodes to its crowdsourced seismic network, but for now, budget restraints make that impossible. Perhaps the agency should consider crowdfunding the project.

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