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UC Berkeley to assist with installation of seismic sensor network

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Seismic sensors were distributed across the Bay Area on July 9 and 10.


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JULY 10, 2011

The U.S. Geological Survey, along with five universities including UC Berkeley, recently launched a plan to install over six thousand seismic sensors in civilian homes and classrooms to detect movement from the earth.

As part of the Quake-Catcher Network, community members can volunteer to host sensors in order to help seismologists track movements in the earth. The first batch of these sensors was distributed across the Bay Area on July 9 and 10.

According to Elizabeth Cochran, a USGS research geophysicist, having such a large number of sensors would allow researchers to track ground movements after an earthquake from more locations, providing a denser record of seismic data.

A sensor can be purchased for $49, or residents can volunteer to host one for free if they live in the specific regions being studied, according to the network’s website.

To install the sensor, it needs to be plugged into a computer’s USB port and firmly attached to the ground to prevent false triggers, such as people moving around, Cochran said. The user must then download a piece of software that monitors the sensor and sends the data back to Stanford University, where the information is being collected.

“Any time there’s significant shaking, such as you kicking the sensor or an earthquake happening, it sends the signal back to the server in Stanford,” Cochran said.

Peggy Hellweg, a research seismologist at UC Berkeley, said campus graduate students have been invited to help learn how to install sensors and can also volunteer to host them since finding hosts for the equipment may take a while.

Though Cochran did not know how many people have signed up as hosts, she said she believed the response would be favorable, referring to a similar project conducted in New Zealand as an example.

“From past experience, when we asked for volunteers in New Zealand, we typically got very enthusiastic responses,” she said. “We expect a similar thing here.”
Cochran said she and her fellow researchers hope to set up the sensors evenly throughout the Bay Area, particularly near the San Andreas, Hayward and Rodgers Creek faults, and then continue installations across other areas of the United States, including southern California and Alaska.

“We’re targeting areas of relatively high seismic risk,” she said.

Should an earthquake strike one of these areas, more sensors would mean seismologists could pinpoint the earthquake’s origin faster and thus relay the information to surrounding cities more quickly, Cochran said.

In addition, she said that with each earthquake, they could detect variations in how the ground moved to identify what types of material resulted in the most shaking.

“We can actually use relatively small earthquakes, like (magnitudes of) twos and threes, to get an idea or picture of what the ground shaking is or what the material is in all of these locations, which is useful knowledge for building infrastructures and buildings,” Cochran said.

Hellweg agreed that looking at data on ground shaking could eventually help identify regions with high shaking and lead to improved building safety. However, she added that further research, analyses and tools were needed to support their conclusions.

“In general, we would expect the ground that moved a lot in one earthquake would move a lot in another, but the earth can always prove us wrong,” she said.

Contact Tiffany Chiao at 


JULY 11, 2011