Earthquake in Progress: Your Laptop Can Save You!

The Quake Catcher Network is the latest effort in distributed computing that aims to turn your computer into a node in a vast, distributed earthquake detection network. Developed by University of California seismologists and computer scientists, Quake Catcher uses accelerometers already built into many laptops to detect shaking. If several nodes produce consistent hits at once, the word goes out across the internet in real time: Earthquake in Progress. Once there are enough nodes in active fault zones, the researchers think they can pick up seismic waves on the Network and transmit a warning to populated areas with somewhere between 10 and 20 seconds of warning. After the break, we take a look at three of the most dangerous places on Earth that are most likely to need Quake Catcher.

Earthquake in Progress: Your Laptop Can Save You!

The San Francisco Bay Area. Let's face it: Californians love living dangerously. San Francisco was nearly wiped out in 1906 by a big shaker that registered 7.9 on the Richter scale. Fires swept through the city and pictures from afterwards resemble Hiroshima circa September, 1945. The city was rocked again in 1989 by the Loma Prieta quake. Stress is constantly building all along the San Andreas fault, so Southern California's also at risk. But the presence of the Hayward fault in Berkeley, just across the bay from San Francisco makes the place a time bomb waiting to go off: a 2002 study by the USGS said there's a 62% chance of a magnitude 6.7 or greater quake in the region between 2003 and 2032.

The Cascadia subduction zone, better known as coastal Oregon, Washington State, and Vancouver Island. Cascadia makes the San Andreas look like a pair of maracas. Recent work from seismologist Chris Goldfinger and company at Oregon State University shows that Cascadia has unleashed hell to the tune of 15 quakes of magnitude 8.0 or greater over the last 3000 years. Eight of those probably exceeded 9.0, making them among the most powerful known. The average time between earthquakes is around 220 years, but the last time the fault slipped was 1700, when a 9.0 quake sent a 5-meter high tsunami rippling onto the shores of Japan. In short, look out Pacific Rim: you're overdue.

Earthquake in Progress: Your Laptop Can Save You!

Mentawai Islands, Indonesia. Everyone knows Indonesia is a tough place to live when it comes to earthquakes and tsunamis (at left you can see Banda Aceh before and after the recent tsunami), but unless you're watching the ticker it's hard to fathom just how bad things are. Back in December, earthquake expert Danny Natawidjaja of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences dropped some knowledge on the rest of the geo-community at the annual Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Not only had there been addition an 8.4 quake in September of 2007, but a major section of the fault was still locked, and had the potential to shake the Earth even harder than the 2004 monster that caused the Indian Ocean tsunami.

He had no idea how right he was. Between February 25 and March 3 of this year (that's one week, for those keep score at home) there were five earthquakes greater than magnitude 6.5. The section of fault Natawidjaja was talking about in December still hasn't popped.

Note: If you want to participate in Quake Catcher, but don't have a laptop with an accelerometer built in: For desktops, QCN has built a USB key with the appropriate hardware, and Ars Technica is teasing us with the possibility of Wii and iPhone-based detection.

Source: University of California, Riverside

Photos: Water Encyclopedia (San Andreas), National Archives (1906 image), Telegraph.co.uk (Banda Aceh)