Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Time to Shake, Rattle, and Roll...for Science

Photo Courtesy:
Quake Catcher Network
Last week a rare strong earthquake hit the U.S. eastern seaboard.  Although damage was minimal the shaking reminded us easterners that the Earth is always in motion.  That's not news for anyone from California or Japan, and especially not for the Stanford Geology Department or the Quake Catcher Network of citizen scientist seismologists (citizen sci-esmologists?).  They've been tracking geologic activity across the country with low-cost seismometers and built-in laptop accelerometers.  This network is contributing to better understanding of active quakes and helping understand how future quakes will impact individual areas at the very local level.

One citizen scientists member in particular, Carolyn McPherson of Charlottesville, Virginia, had the closest sensor to last week's Virginia earthquake and was highlighted in a Washington Post article (summarized here on OpenScientist).  A $50 Christmas gift of a Quake Catcher Network (QCN) seismometer was all it took for her to get started, and though this area had to wait a while for a large enough quake to be interesting, her patience paid off as she gets to see her data be used to better understand this recent event.

Stepping back a bit, the Quake Catcher Network started as Stanford researchers wanted a method to augment the existing network of seismographs without spending huge amounts of money.  They were working on theories about how earthquakes travel over different types of terrain, including differences from city to city and even block to block.  Developing a large network was vital to their research, but they could not afford to set up hundreds of sensors costing up to $100,000 each.  There had to be a better way.  So they devised a cheaper version that could be made for under $50, and though each would not be as sensitive the value of having a pervasive network was much more important than finely detailed data.  They could also take advantage of existing accelerometers many laptop makers have been recently including in their devices.  They just had to repurpose the internal sensors and collect the data.

Now that they've made literally thousands of devices, how to distribute them?  Well, for those people in the most earthquake-prone areas such as those near the San Andreas fault in parts of California or the New Madrid fault (in parts of Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kentucky), sensors are free to individuals willing to set them up and keep them running.  Low-cost ($5) sensors are also available for classrooms across the county: not just for data collection but also as a learning tool for students.  For the rest of us (like me), sensors can be shipped fora low fee of $49.  A small price to pay for the fun of understanding earthquakes (if you ask me).  They also make sensors available through their Rapid Aftershock Mobilization Program to capture data on local aftershocks taking place after major earthquakes hit.

 So check out the Quake Catcher Network web site, and sign up for a sensor!

Getting Started is Easy:
  • We can't do much without the actual sensors.  So head to the Quake Catcher and click here to order one for $49 (or enter your zip code here to qualify for a free one).  Alternatively teachers in K-12 schools can click here for nearly-free ($5) sensors to use in the classroom.  Based on my experience they will arrive in 2-3 days.
  • Before the sensor arrives scout out a good place to install it.  The program requests it be placed flat on the lowest level of your building, and it will need access to your computer through a USB connection.  So find a place near a downstairs computer, or find a way to link it up to a wireless USB connection (I hope to provide more on this step in future posts).  It should also be a place the sensor can sit permanently...to accurately measure earthquakes it needs to be stable when the rumbling starts.  So it will need to be glued or strapped into place.
  • Once the sensor arrives secure it in place, making sure it is on a flat surface and the compass is compass on top is pointing North.  Don't worry about being exact...the alignment can be off by a few degrees and still provide very accurate data.
  • Install the QCN-Live program on your computer.  If you have already installed the BOINC distributed computing software it's just a simple download from the Quake Catcher Network. All you should need to do is click on the appropriate software for your computer here (review the full user manual if you have any trouble).  If you do not have BOINC installed already, click on the BOINC Installer and then upload the QCN software.  You may also want to review the OpenScientist Distributed Computing page to learn about the many other citizen science projects that use the BOINC system software.
  • For laptop users, many of you already have sensors installed that can provide data too.  Just click on the Laptop Network page to see if yours qualifies, and to download the QCNLive software for you machine.
  • Once all the software is installed it's time to let the fun begin. Just attach the USB cable to both the sensor and your own computer.If you see the following earthquake map, you're in the right place.
  • Click through the interface and you should see a seismograph reading like this:
Photo Courtesy: Quake Catcher Network
That's all there is to it. The computer will record data automatically in the background and submit it to QCN-Central on a regular basis. Of course it can't record unless the system is left running but keeping your machine on low power while not in use should help conserve energy while still providing important data.

With all of this data project scientists are looking to validate their own micro-zoning theories they also want everyday citizen scientists to have access and manipulate it also as they desire.  The data is not yet available online yet, but check their Data site frequently for updates.

Finally, I can't let this post end without mentioning the project's need for continued money donations to support the discounted sensor project for classrooms.  They only cost the schools $5 but that only covers shipping and handling...it costs the project even more to make the device available in the first place.  So won't you help them out?  Donate a sensor or two to a school and help this worthwhile project continue.

Photo Courtesy: Quake Catcher Network


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