Optical internet cables could act as sensors to detect earthquakes

Optical internet cables could act as sensors to detect earthquakes”

Optical fibers are thin strands of pure glass about the thickness of a human hair.

Since optical fibers work by bouncing light signals down a glassy cable, minor disturbances to that signal can be measured as they come back.

To test whether these kinds of cables could be used to monitor and measure earthquakes, three miles (4.8 km) of optical fiber was installed under Stanford in a figure-8 shape, fitted with laser interrogators created to record any movements.

While their fiber optic seismic observatory has shown some promising early results, the researchers point out that traditional seismometers are still more sensitive for monitoring earthquakes, but their system has other advantages.

By contrast, a seismic observatory proposed by the researchers would be relatively low-priced to operate. He calculates that for every meter of optical fibre you have to invest about a dollar and this is much less expensive than installing conventional seismometers over a large area.

Such a network would allow scientists to study earthquakes, especially smaller ones, in greater detail and pinpoint their sources more quickly than is now possible.

In the same vein, the seismic observatory was also able to tell the difference between S and P waves, shockwaves that ripple through the ground at different speeds.

Last year, Prof. Biondi and graduate assistant Eileen Martin began experimenting with the fiber optic array and they have recorded about 800 seismic events since then. DAS was previously used and is still being used to monitor oil and gas pipelines.

Previous implementation of this kind of acoustic sensing, however, required optical fibers to be expensively affixed to a surface or encased in cement to maximize contact with the ground and ensure the highest data quality. In Biondi's research the optical fibres were allowed to remain free floating like they always do when telecom companies lay their network. In one case, the sensor picked up two earthquakes from the same source, with magnitudes of 1.6 and 1.8.

The cable that is providing millions of people with internet access, and even the cable you have running to your router - heck, the same fiber optic cable that is going into my router here as I type this, could soon be an early natural disaster detector. "This demonstrates that fiber optic seismic observatory can correctly distinguish between different magnitude quakes".

The fiber optic seismic observatory at Stanford is just the first step toward developing a Bay Area-wide seismic network, Biondi said, and there are still many hurdles to overcome, such as demonstrating that the array can operate on a city-wide scale. This observatory can also serve as an natural disaster warning system because it can distinguish between P and S waves.

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