In an era of increasing natural disasters, any system that can give us an edge while putting our minds at ease is worth investing in. Unfortunately, many of these early warning systems are outrageously expensive. Earthquake and Tsunami systems, for example, rely on seismometers to measure vibrations deep in the Earth, but these machines cost not only a fortune to install, but are pricey to maintain as well.

Recently, a team of researchers at Stanford University, headed by Professor Biondo Biondi and graduate assistant Eileen Martin, devised a way to study seismic activity on a much larger scale, and at a relatively inexpensive price point compared to older seismic monitoring methods. This new system relies on fiber optics, a technology that is already widespread in other tech industries, and responsible for today’s lighting fast internet speeds.

To help scientists develop and implement an earthquake early warning system, the researchers at Stanford modified the web of fiber optic cables running beneath the university to act as an earthquake monitoring network. Their fiber optic system was able to capture over 800 tremors—everything from imperceptibly-tiny tremors, all the way up to the massive 8.1 magnitude earthquake that recently occurred in Chiapas, Mexico, nearly 2000 miles away.

Essentially, optical fiber cables are tiny strands of pure glass that have been bundled together. In a normal application such as an internet line, electrical signals are converted into light, the fastest traveling medium known (hence the term ‘optical’). In order to detect seismic activity, though, the Stanford scientists basically converted the minute disruption of light running through the physical cables—in other words, how much the cable jiggled as the ground vibrated—in to usable information about seismic activity and earthquakes. They found that fiber optic cables are so sensitive they can even capture P Waves—the tiny tremors that arrive before the ground actually starts shaking, signifying an inbound earthquake.

For some time now, scientists have known that fiber optic technology could be employed for seismic monitoring. Previous methods, however, required special casing and mounting systems for the cables, a less than cost-effective endeavor. But Professor Biondi’s system does away with all this, allowing scientists to use the pre-existing and ever-expanding fiber optic infrastructure to monitor seismic activity. The hope is to one day use this technology as a cost-efficient, ubiquitous earthquake early warning system.

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Author: Kevin Rauscher

Fiberguide Marketing