Computer Magic Gives Earthquake Researchers Deeper Insight into Large Earthquakes and the Motion They Generate> News> USC Dornsife
USC Dornsife’s Southern California Earthquake Center is deploying high-performance computers, sensors and other high-tech gadgets to better prepare Californians for intense seismic activity. [5 min read]
Seismic activity is recorded as irregular lines on a seismograph. (Image source: iStock.)
Earthquakes are a pervasive source of anxiety in California, where the San Andreas fault runs through most of the state and threatens to become “the big one” at any given moment. Even the smallest earthquake thrill sends residents to Google for news and sets “earthquake Twitter” on fire.
The Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is working to help allay some of these fears. Since 1991, the center has been researching earthquakes to better understand the phenomenon and, perhaps one day soon, to predict them with much higher accuracy than is currently available.
SCEC also serves as a source of rational information on how to prepare for earthquakes and what to do when they happen. They help both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the California Bureau of Emergency Services guide and educate the public. Each year, their Shakedown Drill helps millions of people around the world get comfortable in hiding and covering themselves if the ground starts to shake.
Yehuda Ben-Zion runs the Southern California Earthquake Center at USC Dornsife. (Photo: Courtesy of Yehuda Ben-Zion.)
Center Director Yehuda Ben-Zion, Professor of Earth Sciences at USC Dornsife, recently explained what SCEC is working on and how their new initiatives – many of which are part of USC’s efforts to use computing for the public good – might help us begin to predict when the next one will appear.
How did you get interested in earthquakes?
Earthquakes are a prime example of a complex natural process that is not well understood and has considerable societal importance. I became interested in earthquakes … in college, when the methods of analyzing complex systems with many interacting processes began to be applied to various problems in earth sciences and other subjects (e.g. , in physics, chemistry and biology).
The aspects of earthquake research that I find particularly rewarding are the ability to interact with highly knowledgeable scientists and students from multidisciplinary communities who are all engaged in earthquake studies, and the opportunity to conduct field studies in large natural environments around the world, which are sometimes quite remote and spectacular.
SCEC recently won the 2021 HPC wire Editor’s Choice Award for the best use of high performance computing in the physical sciences. How can high performance computing help us better understand earthquakes?
Earthquakes and the seismic ground motions they generate are associated with a complex interaction between fault failure processes and the propagation of seismic waves from the fault through the Earth.
To solve such complex problems, SCEC pioneered research with high performance computing, starting with former SCEC Director Tom Jordan and expanding over the following years. High Performance Computing uses powerful supercomputers to simulate and analyze data, which produces results much faster than your standard desktop computer.
The results improve our understanding of many seismic phenomena. This involves specifying how often earthquakes of varying magnitudes are expected in different regions, and how factors such as the direction in which the fault breaks and wave resonance in sedimentary basins, where loose rock and soil settle over millions of years, all combine to increase soil movement in certain locations. The second example is well illustrated in this recent animation.
In what ways can the public better understand and prepare for earthquakes using SCEC resources?
Our seven steps to earthquake safety provide advice on what to do before, during and after earthquakes. These documents are available in 14 languages and include advice for people with disabilities.
Since 2008, SCEC has helped coordinate the annual Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drill. Millions of people participated across the United States, the American territories and in many countries of the world.
What advances or breakthroughs in earthquake science do you anticipate in the next decade?
There are great opportunities in earthquake science, and many of them relate directly to the initiatives SCEC is currently working on.
Advances in sensor technology and deployments near major faults will allow us to fill critical knowledge gaps and capture fundamental new information about seismic processes. Advances in machine learning and other data mining techniques will allow us to extract more detailed information from this recorded data. The combination of these advances should allow us to solve many questions about seismic processes and underground structures.
Advances in research computing and earthquake simulators will improve our understanding of the processes that lead to large earthquakes. This, combined with the expected improved data and advanced signal analysis, has high potential to improve our ability to predict large earthquakes.
Advanced computer simulations of the seismic movement of the ground will allow us to improve our estimates of direct and cascading seismic risks, such as landslides. This will contribute to better building codes and other activities that can reduce the risk that earthquakes pose to society.
What new projects is SCEC currently working on?
We are working on an initiative to install dense arrays of sensors near large plate-boundary faults, where tectonic plates converge. This will significantly improve the data available on what is happening near the source of the earthquakes. SCEC is also developing a ‘next generation earthquake simulator’, which will answer key questions such as the physical processes that produce the conditions for large earthquakes to occur.
We are also planning to revamp our internship programs to further train students to take advantage of new computational and visualization techniques to solve great challenges in earthquake science. These activities have been very successful in the past, and we seek to involve other groups at USC in this endeavor.
What student opportunities is SCEC working on?
The SCEC Office of Experiential Learning and Career Advancement program supports diversity and retention within the STEM workforce by providing opportunities for research, networking, training and development. ‘other resources for students and early-career researchers and professors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics that are not readily available. resources in their own institutions.
Over 700 undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds have participated in SCEC internship programs. Through the SCEC Transitions program, students and early-career researchers benefit from mentor and mentee training, career guidance and development, and technical skills training through workshops, courses short term and research visits.