From LANL via WIRED: “AI Helps Seismologists Predict Earthquakes”

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Machine learning is bringing seismologists closer to an elusive goal: forecasting quakes well before they strike.

Remnants of a 2,000-year-old spruce forest on Neskowin Beach, Oregon — one of dozens of “ghost forests” along the Oregon and Washington coast. It’s thought that a mega-earthquake of the Cascadia subduction zone felled the trees, and that the stumps were then buried by tsunami debris.Photograph: Race Jones/Outlive Creative

In May of last year, after a 13-month slumber, the ground beneath Washington’s Puget Sound rumbled to life. The quake began more than 20 miles below the Olympic mountains and, over the course of a few weeks, drifted northwest, reaching Canada’s Vancouver Island. It then briefly reversed course, migrating back across the US border before going silent again. All told, the monthlong earthquake likely released enough energy to register as a magnitude 6. By the time it was done, the southern tip of Vancouver Island had been thrust a centimeter or so closer to the Pacific Ocean.

Because the quake was so spread out in time and space, however, it’s likely that no one felt it. These kinds of phantom earthquakes, which occur deeper underground than conventional, fast earthquakes, are known as “slow slips.” They occur roughly once a year in the Pacific Northwest, along a stretch of fault where the Juan de Fuca plate is slowly wedging itself beneath the North American plate. More than a dozen slow slips have been detected by the region’s sprawling network of seismic stations since 2003. And for the past year and a half, these events have been the focus of a new effort at earthquake prediction by the geophysicist Paul Johnson.

Johnson’s team is among a handful of groups that are using machine learning to try to demystify earthquake physics and tease out the warning signs of impending quakes. Two years ago, using pattern-finding algorithms similar to those behind recent advances in image and speech recognition and other forms of artificial intelligence, he and his collaborators successfully predicted temblors in a model laboratory system—a feat that has since been duplicated by researchers in Europe.

Now, in a paper posted this week on the scientific preprint site, Johnson and his team report that they’ve tested their algorithm on slow slip quakes in the Pacific Northwest. The paper has yet to undergo peer review, but outside experts say the results are tantalizing. According to Johnson, they indicate that the algorithm can predict the start of a slow slip earthquake to “within a few days—and possibly better.”

“This is an exciting development,” said Maarten de Hoop, a seismologist at Rice University who was not involved with the work. “For the first time, I think there’s a moment where we’re really making progress” toward earthquake prediction.

Mostafa Mousavi, a geophysicist at Stanford University, called the new results “interesting and motivating.” He, de Hoop, and others in the field stress that machine learning has a long way to go before it can reliably predict catastrophic earthquakes—and that some hurdles may be difficult, if not impossible, to surmount. Still, in a field where scientists have struggled for decades and seen few glimmers of hope, machine learning may be their best shot.

Sticks and Slips

The late seismologist Charles Richter, for whom the Richter magnitude scale is named, noted in 1977 that earthquake prediction can provide “a happy hunting ground for amateurs, cranks, and outright publicity-seeking fakers.” Today, many seismologists will tell you that they’ve seen their fair share of all three.

But there have also been reputable scientists who concocted theories that, in hindsight, seem woefully misguided, if not downright wacky. There was the University of Athens geophysicist Panayiotis Varotsos, who claimed he could detect impending earthquakes by measuring “seismic electric signals.” There was Brian Brady, the physicist from the US Bureau of Mines who in the early 1980s sounded successive false alarms in Peru, basing them on a tenuous notion that rock bursts in underground mines were telltale signs of coming quakes.

Paul Johnson is well aware of this checkered history. He knows that the mere phrase “earthquake prediction” is taboo in many quarters. He knows about the six Italian scientists who were convicted of manslaughter in 2012 for downplaying the chances of an earthquake near the central Italian town of L’Aquila, days before the region was devastated by a magnitude 6.3 temblor. (The convictions were later overturned.) He knows about the prominent seismologists who have forcefully declared that “earthquakes cannot be predicted.”

But Johnson also knows that earthquakes are physical processes, no different in that respect from the collapse of a dying star or the shifting of the winds. And though he stresses that his primary aim is to better understand fault physics, he hasn’t shied away from the prediction problem.

Paul Johnson, a geophysicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, photographed in 2008 with a block of acrylic plastic, one of the materials his team uses to simulate earthquakes in the laboratory.Photograph: Los Alamos National Laboratory

More than a decade ago, Johnson began studying “laboratory earthquakes,” made with sliding blocks separated by thin layers of granular material. Like tectonic plates, the blocks don’t slide smoothly but in fits and starts: They’ll typically stick together for seconds at a time, held in place by friction, until the shear stress grows large enough that they suddenly slip. That slip—the laboratory version of an earthquake—releases the stress, and then the stick-slip cycle begins anew.

When Johnson and his colleagues recorded the acoustic signal emitted during those stick-slip cycles, they noticed sharp peaks just before each slip. Those precursor events were the laboratory equivalent of the seismic waves produced by foreshocks before an earthquake. But just as seismologists have struggled to translate foreshocks into forecasts of when the main quake will occur, Johnson and his colleagues couldn’t figure out how to turn the precursor events into reliable predictions of laboratory quakes. “We were sort of at a dead end,” Johnson recalled. “I couldn’t see any way to proceed.”

At a meeting a few years ago in Los Alamos, Johnson explained his dilemma to a group of theoreticians. They suggested he reanalyze his data using machine learning—an approach that was well known by then for its prowess at recognizing patterns in audio data.

Together, the scientists hatched a plan. They would take the roughly five minutes of audio recorded during each experimental run—encompassing 20 or so stick-slip cycles—and chop it up into many tiny segments. For each segment, the researchers calculated more than 80 statistical features, including the mean signal, the variation about that mean, and information about whether the segment contained a precursor event. Because the researchers were analyzing the data in hindsight, they also knew how much time had elapsed between each sound segment and the subsequent failure of the laboratory fault.

Armed with this training data, they used what’s known as a “random forest” machine learning algorithm to systematically look for combinations of features that were strongly associated with the amount of time left before failure. After seeing a couple of minutes’ worth of experimental data, the algorithm could begin to predict failure times based on the features of the acoustic emission alone.

Johnson and his co-workers chose to employ a random forest algorithm to predict the time before the next slip in part because—compared with neural networks and other popular machine learning algorithms—random forests are relatively easy to interpret. The algorithm essentially works like a decision tree in which each branch splits the data set according to some statistical feature. The tree thus preserves a record of which features the algorithm used to make its predictions—and the relative importance of each feature in helping the algorithm arrive at those predictions.

A polarizing lens shows the buildup of stress as a model tectonic plate slides laterally along a fault line in an experiment at Los Alamos National Laboratory.Photograph: Los Alamos National Laboratory.

When the Los Alamos researchers probed those inner workings of their algorithm, what they learned surprised them. The statistical feature the algorithm leaned on most heavily for its predictions was unrelated to the precursor events just before a laboratory quake. Rather, it was the variance—a measure of how the signal fluctuates about the mean—and it was broadcast throughout the stick-slip cycle, not just in the moments immediately before failure. The variance would start off small and then gradually climb during the run-up to a quake, presumably as the grains between the blocks increasingly jostled one another under the mounting shear stress. Just by knowing this variance, the algorithm could make a decent guess at when a slip would occur; information about precursor events helped refine those guesses.

The finding had big potential implications. For decades, would-be earthquake prognosticators had keyed in on foreshocks and other isolated seismic events. The Los Alamos result suggested that everyone had been looking in the wrong place—that the key to prediction lay instead in the more subtle information broadcast during the relatively calm periods between the big seismic events.

To be sure, sliding blocks don’t begin to capture the chemical, thermal and morphological complexity of true geological faults. To show that machine learning could predict real earthquakes, Johnson needed to test it out on a real fault. What better place to do that, he figured, than in the Pacific Northwest?

Out of the Lab

Most if not all of the places on Earth that can experience a magnitude 9 earthquake are subduction zones, where one tectonic plate dives beneath another. A subduction zone just east of Japan was responsible for the Tohoku earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that devastated the country’s coastline in 2011. One day, the Cascadia subduction zone, where the Juan de Fuca plate dives beneath the North American plate, will similarly devastate Puget Sound, Vancouver Island and the surrounding Pacific Northwest.

Cascadia plate zones

Cascadia subduction zone

The Cascadia subduction zone stretches along roughly 1,000 kilometers of the Pacific coastline from Cape Mendocino in Northern California to Vancouver Island. The last time it breached, in January 1700, it begot a magnitude 9 temblor and a tsunami that reached the coast of Japan. Geological records suggest that throughout the Holocene, the fault has produced such megaquakes roughly once every half-millennium, give or take a few hundred years. Statistically speaking, the next big one is due any century now.

That’s one reason seismologists have paid such close attention to the region’s slow slip earthquakes. The slow slips in the lower reaches of a subduction-zone fault are thought to transmit small amounts of stress to the brittle crust above, where fast, catastrophic quakes occur. With each slow slip in the Puget Sound-Vancouver Island area, the chances of a Pacific Northwest megaquake ratchet up ever so slightly. Indeed, a slow slip was observed in Japan in the month leading up to the Tohoku quake.

For Johnson, however, there’s another reason to pay attention to slow slip earthquakes: They produce lots and lots of data. For comparison, there have been no major fast earthquakes on the stretch of fault between Puget Sound and Vancouver Island in the past 12 years. In the same time span, the fault has produced a dozen slow slips, each one recorded in a detailed seismic catalog.

That seismic catalog is the real-world counterpart to the acoustic recordings from Johnson’s laboratory earthquake experiment. Just as they did with the acoustic recordings, Johnson and his co-workers chopped the seismic data into small segments, characterizing each segment with a suite of statistical features. They then fed that training data, along with information about the timing of past slow slip events, to their machine learning algorithm.

After being trained on data from 2007 to 2013, the algorithm was able to make predictions about slow slips that occurred between 2013 and 2018, based on the data logged in the months before each event. The key feature was the seismic energy, a quantity closely related to the variance of the acoustic signal in the laboratory experiments. Like the variance, the seismic energy climbed in a characteristic fashion in the run-up to each slow slip.

The Cascadia forecasts weren’t quite as accurate as the ones for laboratory quakes. The correlation coefficients characterizing how well the predictions fit observations were substantially lower in the new results than they were in the laboratory study. Still, the algorithm was able to predict all but one of the five slow slips that occurred between 2013 and 2018, pinpointing the start times, Johnson says, to within a matter of days. (A slow slip that occurred in August 2019 wasn’t included in the study.)

For de Hoop, the big takeaway is that “machine learning techniques have given us a corridor, an entry into searching in data to look for things that we have never identified or seen before.” But he cautions that there’s more work to be done. “An important step has been taken—an extremely important step. But it is like a tiny little step in the right direction.”

Sobering Truths

The goal of earthquake forecasting has never been to predict slow slips. Rather, it’s to predict sudden, catastrophic quakes that pose danger to life and limb. For the machine learning approach, this presents a seeming paradox: The biggest earthquakes, the ones that seismologists would most like to be able to foretell, are also the rarest. How will a machine learning algorithm ever get enough training data to predict them with confidence?

The Los Alamos group is betting that their algorithms won’t actually need to train on catastrophic earthquakes to predict them. Recent studies suggest that the seismic patterns before small earthquakes are statistically similar to those of their larger counterparts, and on any given day, dozens of small earthquakes may occur on a single fault. A computer trained on thousands of those small temblors might be versatile enough to predict the big ones. Machine learning algorithms might also be able to train on computer simulations of fast earthquakes that could one day serve as proxies for real data.

But even so, scientists will confront this sobering truth: Although the physical processes that drive a fault to the brink of an earthquake may be predictable, the actual triggering of a quake—the growth of a small seismic disturbance into full-blown fault rupture—is believed by most scientists to contain at least an element of randomness. Assuming that’s so, no matter how well machines are trained, they may never be able to predict earthquakes as well as scientists predict other natural disasters.

“We don’t know what forecasting in regards to timing means yet,” Johnson said. “Would it be like a hurricane? No, I don’t think so.”

In the best-case scenario, predictions of big earthquakes will probably have time bounds of weeks, months or years. Such forecasts probably couldn’t be used, say, to coordinate a mass evacuation on the eve of a temblor. But they could increase public preparedness, help public officials target their efforts to retrofit unsafe buildings, and otherwise mitigate hazards of catastrophic earthquakes.

Johnson sees that as a goal worth striving for. Ever the realist, however, he knows it will take time. “I’m not saying we’re going to predict earthquakes in my lifetime,” he said, “but … we’re going to make a hell of a lot of progress.”

See the full article here .

Earthquake Alert


Earthquake Alert

Earthquake Network project Earthquake Network is a research project which aims at developing and maintaining a crowdsourced smartphone-based earthquake warning system at a global level. Smartphones made available by the population are used to detect the earthquake waves using the on-board accelerometers. When an earthquake is detected, an earthquake warning is issued in order to alert the population not yet reached by the damaging waves of the earthquake.

The project started on January 1, 2013 with the release of the homonymous Android application Earthquake Network. The author of the research project and developer of the smartphone application is Francesco Finazzi of the University of Bergamo, Italy.

Get the app in the Google Play store.

Smartphone network spatial distribution (green and red dots) on December 4, 2015

Meet The Quake-Catcher Network

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Quake-Catcher Network

The Quake-Catcher Network is a collaborative initiative for developing the world’s largest, low-cost strong-motion seismic network by utilizing sensors in and attached to internet-connected computers. With your help, the Quake-Catcher Network can provide better understanding of earthquakes, give early warning to schools, emergency response systems, and others. The Quake-Catcher Network also provides educational software designed to help teach about earthquakes and earthquake hazards.

After almost eight years at Stanford, and a year at CalTech, the QCN project is moving to the University of Southern California Dept. of Earth Sciences. QCN will be sponsored by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) and the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC).

The Quake-Catcher Network is a distributed computing network that links volunteer hosted computers into a real-time motion sensing network. QCN is one of many scientific computing projects that runs on the world-renowned distributed computing platform Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC).

The volunteer computers monitor vibrational sensors called MEMS accelerometers, and digitally transmit “triggers” to QCN’s servers whenever strong new motions are observed. QCN’s servers sift through these signals, and determine which ones represent earthquakes, and which ones represent cultural noise (like doors slamming, or trucks driving by).

There are two categories of sensors used by QCN: 1) internal mobile device sensors, and 2) external USB sensors.

Mobile Devices: MEMS sensors are often included in laptops, games, cell phones, and other electronic devices for hardware protection, navigation, and game control. When these devices are still and connected to QCN, QCN software monitors the internal accelerometer for strong new shaking. Unfortunately, these devices are rarely secured to the floor, so they may bounce around when a large earthquake occurs. While this is less than ideal for characterizing the regional ground shaking, many such sensors can still provide useful information about earthquake locations and magnitudes.

USB Sensors: MEMS sensors can be mounted to the floor and connected to a desktop computer via a USB cable. These sensors have several advantages over mobile device sensors. 1) By mounting them to the floor, they measure more reliable shaking than mobile devices. 2) These sensors typically have lower noise and better resolution of 3D motion. 3) Desktops are often left on and do not move. 4) The USB sensor is physically removed from the game, phone, or laptop, so human interaction with the device doesn’t reduce the sensors’ performance. 5) USB sensors can be aligned to North, so we know what direction the horizontal “X” and “Y” axes correspond to.

If you are a science teacher at a K-12 school, please apply for a free USB sensor and accompanying QCN software. QCN has been able to purchase sensors to donate to schools in need. If you are interested in donating to the program or requesting a sensor, click here.

BOINC is a leader in the field(s) of Distributed Computing, Grid Computing and Citizen Cyberscience.BOINC is more properly the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, developed at UC Berkeley.

Earthquake safety is a responsibility shared by billions worldwide. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) provides software so that individuals can join together to improve earthquake monitoring, earthquake awareness, and the science of earthquakes. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) links existing networked laptops and desktops in hopes to form the worlds largest strong-motion seismic network.

Below, the QCN Quake Catcher Network map
QCN Quake Catcher Network map

ShakeAlert: An Earthquake Early Warning System for the West Coast of the United States

The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) along with a coalition of State and university partners is developing and testing an earthquake early warning (EEW) system called ShakeAlert for the west coast of the United States. Long term funding must be secured before the system can begin sending general public notifications, however, some limited pilot projects are active and more are being developed. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018.

Watch a video describing how ShakeAlert works in English or Spanish.

The primary project partners include:

United States Geological Survey
California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES)
California Geological Survey
California Institute of Technology
University of California Berkeley
University of Washington
University of Oregon
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

The Earthquake Threat

Earthquakes pose a national challenge because more than 143 million Americans live in areas of significant seismic risk across 39 states. Most of our Nation’s earthquake risk is concentrated on the West Coast of the United States. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated the average annualized loss from earthquakes, nationwide, to be $5.3 billion, with 77 percent of that figure ($4.1 billion) coming from California, Washington, and Oregon, and 66 percent ($3.5 billion) from California alone. In the next 30 years, California has a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake and the Pacific Northwest has a 10 percent chance of a magnitude 8 to 9 megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone.

Part of the Solution

Today, the technology exists to detect earthquakes, so quickly, that an alert can reach some areas before strong shaking arrives. The purpose of the ShakeAlert system is to identify and characterize an earthquake a few seconds after it begins, calculate the likely intensity of ground shaking that will result, and deliver warnings to people and infrastructure in harm’s way. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave arrives, bringing the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage.

Studies of earthquake early warning methods in California have shown that the warning time would range from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds. ShakeAlert can give enough time to slow trains and taxiing planes, to prevent cars from entering bridges and tunnels, to move away from dangerous machines or chemicals in work environments and to take cover under a desk, or to automatically shut down and isolate industrial systems. Taking such actions before shaking starts can reduce damage and casualties during an earthquake. It can also prevent cascading failures in the aftermath of an event. For example, isolating utilities before shaking starts can reduce the number of fire initiations.

System Goal

The USGS will issue public warnings of potentially damaging earthquakes and provide warning parameter data to government agencies and private users on a region-by-region basis, as soon as the ShakeAlert system, its products, and its parametric data meet minimum quality and reliability standards in those geographic regions. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018. Product availability will expand geographically via ANSS regional seismic networks, such that ShakeAlert products and warnings become available for all regions with dense seismic instrumentation.

Current Status

The West Coast ShakeAlert system is being developed by expanding and upgrading the infrastructure of regional seismic networks that are part of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS); the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) is made up of the Southern California Seismic Network, SCSN) and the Northern California Seismic System, NCSS and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN). This enables the USGS and ANSS to leverage their substantial investment in sensor networks, data telemetry systems, data processing centers, and software for earthquake monitoring activities residing in these network centers. The ShakeAlert system has been sending live alerts to “beta” users in California since January of 2012 and in the Pacific Northwest since February of 2015.

In February of 2016 the USGS, along with its partners, rolled-out the next-generation ShakeAlert early warning test system in California joined by Oregon and Washington in April 2017. This West Coast-wide “production prototype” has been designed for redundant, reliable operations. The system includes geographically distributed servers, and allows for automatic fail-over if connection is lost.

This next-generation system will not yet support public warnings but does allow selected early adopters to develop and deploy pilot implementations that take protective actions triggered by the ShakeAlert notifications in areas with sufficient sensor coverage.


The USGS will develop and operate the ShakeAlert system, and issue public notifications under collaborative authorities with FEMA, as part of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, as enacted by the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, 42 U.S.C. §§ 7704 SEC. 2.

For More Information

Robert de Groot, ShakeAlert National Coordinator for Communication, Education, and Outreach

Learn more about EEW Research

ShakeAlert Fact Sheet

ShakeAlert Implementation Plan


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