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Asian scientists shake up earthquake research

Researchers from Taiwan have proposed a large-scale data network allowing the whole of the Asia-Pacific to share and analyse seismic data gathered on earthquakes, one of which struck Taiwan just seven days ago.

As recent events in Haiti, Chile and Turkey have demonstrated, earthquakes can have devastating effect. Those living in the Asia-Pacific are well aware of this. Lying on the so-called “Ring of Fire”, countries such as Taiwan are at high risk of natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, and tsunamis. Today researchers at the International Symposium on Grid Computing, ISGC 2010, have gathered to share their experience of mitigating such disasters.

“Earthquake prediction is an unsolved problem. But using data gathered by seismometers we are able to predict ground motion and reduce the damage. Providing access to earthquake data will help the Asia-Pacific to be better prepared when an earthquake strikes - the more information we have, the better.” says Li Zhao from the Institute of Earth Sciences, Academia Sinica, Taipei.

“Our dream is to have an integrated regional data centre for the Asia-Pacific, which is accessible for scientists to study the earth nature.” says Wen-Tzong Liang also of the Institute of Earth Sciences. This could improve scientist's knowledge of earthquakes and the earth's interior, providing information for engineers to design and reinforce buildings appropriately as well as teaching citizens how to respond when an earthquake strikes.

In order for such a network to be successful, data needs to be gathered from countries across the Asia-Pacific, not just those that are prone to earthquakes. The team at Academia Sinica, led by Bor-Shouh Huang, have already started tackling this problem. In the last two years they have set up ten new stations along the Vietnamese coast, and are set to deploy even more in the Philippines.

These seismic stations will produce real-time data continuously for any local data centre to monitor earthquake activity in this region. Giving scientists wider access to the archived data can help them predict what will happen when an earthquake strikes and understand what the earth structure is below the surface.

“We use computers to simulate wave propagation so if there's an earthquake in Taiwan we can determine how much the earth will shake anywhere in the world.” says Li Zhao from the Institute of Earth Sciences, Academia Sinica. “Using archived data records we can investigate the structure inside the earth, and if we know this we can better predict the ground motion. For example Taipei lies in a basin – the ground is covered by a soft sedimentary layer. So if an earthquake happens, Taipei will experience a higher motion than the surrounding area, a process called amplification.”

To set up this network, researchers are hoping grid technologies can provide robust and reliable ways to transmit and store data. They have already turned to grid computing to help analyse the data itself.

“The most important ground motion is in the frequency of a few Hertz, so the higher the frequency the more realistic the prediction is. But doing calculations at very high frequency requires a lot of computing power. Grid technology gives any researcher with an internet connection a way to run simulations for any earthquake they wish to study.” says Zhao. Zhao demonstrated a new gateway which gives scientists easy access to a grid-based simulator at an ISGC 2010 workshop earlier this week.

Vicky Huang | ASGC
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