Feature Story

Sensing Earthquakes and Forest Fires

by Anne Field

Internet of Everything Technology is being used to detect and monitor natural disasters.

Last August, 10 seconds before residents of South Napa, Cal., were awakened by an earthquake measuring 6.0; scientists at the UC-Berkeley Seismological Laboratory were warned of the impending quake. The conveyor of that information? ShakeAlert, an Internet of Everything (IoE) early warning system using sensors to monitor and detect quake activity.    

It was a noteworthy example of one of the many uses of IoE technology:  the preventing or detecting of natural or man-made disasters. (Think earthquakes, forest fires, avalanches and the like). Here's a look at two examples:

On the Trail of Forest Fires

A rise in the number of forest fires, due in part to the effects of climate change, as well as increasing incursions by people into forests, makes the need for detection and monitoring especially vital these days. That's where the Remote Sensing Applications Center  in Salt Lake City, which is part of the USDA Forest Service, comes in. Among other duties, it provides fire tracking services to about 180 national forests covering over 193 million acres, detecting active blazes and monitoring them until they quiet down.

Through the Active Fire Mapping program, the Center does what Brad Qualye, program lead at the Center's Rapid Disturbance Assessment and Services Program, calls "strategic and tactical" detection.  Strategic work uses satellite sensors to determine the location and size of fires throughout the U.S.  and Canada.  Multiple times a day, antennae on top of a ground station collect real-time data, such as fire intensity and altitude and longitude, as the sensors pass over-head. They send the information to computers, which create maps, monitored by a crew at the station. Four sensors are used for thermal observation, each providing different levels of spatial resolution.  

The effort has been underway for more than 10 years. Now, the Center is trying out new sensors with the ability to produce finer resolution, according to Quale— say, 30 meters compared to 1 kilometer.       

As for tactical detection, the Center uses two aircraft, a jet and turboprop, for nightly infrared mapping. Flying at about 10,000 feet, sensors on board receive more detailed images than are possible through satellite sensors. Then through satellite communication equipment on the aircraft, data is sent to a server on the ground. There, interpreters make sense of the imagery, pinpointing the fire's boundaries and other topographical data, and creating maps for local emergency responders. 

The Center is also introducing new sensors allowing aircraft to fly at higher altitudes and cover more area. "The sensors have a wider swath, while collecting data at the same spatial resolution," says Quayle. "It means we can cover more fires in one night."                                                                            

Quake Warning

Earthquakes are tricky phenomenon to predict. They start and spread very quickly--at the speed of sound--unlike, say, hurricanes that develop in the middle of the ocean days before they land.

On the other hand, earthquakes start off with what are known as P-waves, which precede S–waves, the force that shakes the ground and causes all the destruction and mayhem.  And that's what the ShakeAlert System, in beta for the past two years, detects.  A collaboration between Berkeley, Caltech, the University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey, its 300 or so sensors located throughout California pick up P-waves, transmitting them to central computers. Then they, through various algorithms, figure out whether there's been an earthquake and send out a real-time alert about the incident's location and magnitude to various sites before the heavy-duty S-wave commences.

In the meantime, emergency coordinators in various agencies are putting in place protocols for what steps will be taken after an alert comes through.

While a warning of 10 seconds isn't enough, of course, for an all-out evacuation, it is sufficient time to take a wide variety of actions likely to avoid all manner of potentially catastrophic reactions.  "Our biggest goal is to be able to alert emergency responders who are best positioned to mitigate hazards," says Dr. Jennifer Strauss, external relations officer for the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.

That can mean helping individuals take immediate precautions, like hiding under a sturdy desk or table.  But it also can involve warning pilots not to land on shaky runways and keep circling around, giving the heads-up to someone about to touch a high voltage line or putting controls into elevators that can keep doors open, so riders aren't trapped.  "That means firefighters and EMTs have fewer people to worry about, so they can worry about infrastructure and other really big problems," says Strauss.

The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, Bay Area Rapid Transit and others are testing the system now. Next step: move from the current demonstration prototype to a full-scale public warning system.  "We have to figure out all the in's and out's of how to send this information to the public," says Strauss.


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