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Bumps in the night

Anyone can help contribute to early warning systems for earthquakes with only the use of a USB stick, a modern laptop, smart phone, or even a Nintendo Wii controller through a volunteer computing project called the Quake Catcher Network (QCN).

The project uses data from small remote sensors, MEMs (micro-electromechanical-systems) that contain accelerometers. MEMs measure the acceleration or change in velocity in a specific space and are found in many modern devices such as laptops and phones. QCN uses the MEMs in these devices as basic sensors to detect ground tremors and they are essential in detecting earthquakes early, assessing their magnitude and tracking the propagation of seismic waves.

The view below is a night-time display of the QCN. Purple lines are fault lines and the red spots are areas that have suffered earthquakes.

night-time display of the QCN

With enough sensors in an area, an earthquake early warning system can also be set up. Each MEM sensor on the Quake Catcher Network is not of the highest quality (10 or 12 bits), but what they lack in sensitivity, they make up for in simplicity. With enough MEMs in a given area - around 300 - they can function as one large high-resolution seismic detector. Volunteers can have MEMs attached to their laptops via USB sticks or place sensors independently in a specific area.

Want to read more about the success stories powered by volunteer computing? Take a look at International Science Grid This Week, a weekly online publication that covers distributed computing and the research it enables.