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Citizen Geology: Earthquake-spotting @ home October 29, 2008

Posted by Sarah in science.
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Earthquake in Reno, Nevada in April this year, as detected by traditional earthquake sensors (black) and by laptops participating in QCN (blue).

Earthquake in Reno, Nevada in April this year, as detected by traditional earthquake sensors (black) and by laptops participating in QCN (blue).

Citizen science is a term loosely used to describe scientific research projects that use resources offered by the general public, without specific training, often enabled by the internet. The SETI@home initiative was one of the first high profile projects in astronomy to use computing power in the homes of non-scientists to process large volumes of data; more recently the Galaxy Zoo project enlisted volunteers to help with the identification of galaxy shapes.

Now geology has also joined the fray of citizen science with the Quake-Catcher Network, led by scientists from Stanford University and UC Riverside. Using the same BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Networked Computing) infrastructure that enabled SETI@home, it links thousands of laptop and desktop computers around the world to help gather data from earthquakes, as they occur.

Inside many laptops are sensitive accelerometer chips that are designed to protect the computer from sudden shocks and jolts. As it turns out, these little chips are also well suited to recording the vibrations resulting from an earthquake! With many computers linked together, vibrations from other sources such as typing or electronic activity inside the laptop can be filtered out to isolate the earthquake signature.

So by harnessing the power of these accelerometers, geologists can eliminate the neeed for expensive seismographs.

I’m a major geology geek so I’ll be checking tomorrow if I have a chip like this in my laptop, and if I do I’ll definitely be signing up. Another cool detail is that the origin of the project goes back to a bunch of friendly hackers who managed to find a way to access these accelerometers in the first place, which led to the development of a first seismology program called SeisMac.

Read more about it here!

Image Credit: Quake Catcher Network project


1. kartikeya swami - October 29, 2008

would gladly lend my desk top for this project….just let me know

2. Sarah - October 29, 2008

have a look at the QCN site, it gives all the instructions. to use a desktop computer you need to buy a sensor first. it also has a list of laptop types that have one of these sensors built in (mine doesn’t 😦 ). good luck!

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