Using the Internet to Understand Earthquakes

SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 29, 1999 — When the U.S. Geological Survey measured earthquake activity in the San Jose area of Northern California last year, finding the volunteers it needed to complete the study proved to be a logistical nightmare.

The agency asked local television and radio stations to send out a call for volunteers, then waited by the phone for the response.
“I had no clue how hard it was to handle thousands of phone messages,”
said Allan Lindh, the USGS seismologist who led the study.
“They’re incomplete, and you have to call people back and get more information. I spent over a month transcribing messages and then following up on them.”

Hoping to avoid the same scenario this time, the USGS has teamed up with Microsoft and Carta Inc. to create a Web site for its most recent study of earthquake activity in the urban areas of San Francisco and Oakland. The Web site will help the USGS quickly find the volunteers it needs to conduct important research in the highest-risk earthquake area in the U.S. It will also allow the agency to educate the public about the results of its research and direct people to other earthquake resources available on the Internet.

“This will be such an enormous labor-saving measure for us,”
Lindh said.
“Residents will be able to fill out a form that goes directly into a database and allows us to measure the coordinates of their house. It will allow us to find the volunteers we need more quickly, and keep residents updated on the study as it progresses.”

The Web site marks one of the first times the USGS has teamed up with high-tech companies to use the Internet in such an interactive way for its earthquake research. Using the Web as a way to find volunteers will enable the agency to conduct its study more quickly, providing vital information on how the earth beneath San Francisco and Oakland will respond to a major earthquake.

“This is about saving lives,”
said Charles Earnest, media and community liaison for Microsoft’s Northern California District.
“The USGS can’t predict earthquakes in advance. But the more data geologists are able to gather, the more definitively they’ll be able to predict which areas will be damaged the most.”

The study, which will begin later this year, entails placing 70 seismometers in volunteers’ backyards throughout the San Francisco area to measure the movement of the Earth’s surface. Earthquakes of small magnitude happen frequently along the San Andreas and Hayward faults, Lindh said. By measuring this activity over several months, the USGS will be able to build an accurate three-dimensional model of the structure of the Earth in the San Francisco area.

“The main thrust of this is to get a better handle on the structure of the rocks below the city,”
Lindh said.
“By putting seismometers on basically every unit, we’ll be able to build a three-dimensional model of what the Earth looks like underneath San Francisco and Oakland, and that will help computer modelers build better models of the shaking that will occur during a major earthquake.”

The results of the study will be used to predict which parts of the city, based on the makeup of the Earth beneath them, are likely to receive the most damage during the next sizeable earthquake, which has a 66 percent chance of happening within the next 30 years, according to Lindh. Homeowners will be able to use that information to renovate their homes, and planning officials will be able to construct buildings, bridges, and transportation and utility infrastructures that are more resistant to earthquakes.

“In the long run, it will influence the way buildings are constructed,”
Lindh said.
“It may take five to 10 years, but eventually it will end up as part of the building codes and the planning regulations.”

The USGS partnership with Microsoft and Carta Inc. happened by accident, Lindh said. Last year, as a guest speaker on National Public Radio’s
“Science Friday,”
Lindh discussed his agency’s research on earthquakes and its need for additional resources. Earnest happened to hear about the program, and called Lindh a few weeks after appearing on the show to discuss ways Microsoft technology could help with the effort. Microsoft agreed to donate software, while its Web development partner Carta Inc. agreed to build and maintain the site.

“We’re always looking for unique opportunities to deploy our technology, and this is an effort that will increase public safety,”
Earnest said.
“Helping people is what our tools do best. And if Microsoft technology helps people better educate themselves and prepare themselves for an earthquake, our participation will have been successful.”

The Web site, located at, includes information about the current study as well as the USGS’ previous research on earthquake activity on the San Jose area. Residents willing to have a seismometer placed on their property can complete and submit a volunteer form. Visitors can view maps highlighting information about the study and visit related earthquake sites to obtain more information about earthquakes and what they can do to prepare.

“We’ve already done studies in certain areas of San Francisco — especially those areas that are built on mud or artificial fill,”
Lindh said.
“But what we’re trying to do here is get a more global picture of the structure of the entire area, and obtain recordings on all the different geologic units.”

The USGS plans to collect data until about July of 2000. It will spend the subsequent year analyzing the data, and publish the final results on the Web site by September 2001.

“This is an issue that’s a high priority for people in the Bay area,”
Earnest said.
“Everybody’s sitting on their edge of the seat waiting for the next major earthquake. The more information people can get about what they need to do to ensure their buildings are safe, the better off everyone will be.”

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