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Taking a Crack at Predicting Quakes

Researchers Are Studying Ways To Process The Mountains Of Real-Time Data On Earthquakes - All In An Effort To Improve Their Dismal Record Of Forecasting Them.

- By Dan McGraw

When Dennis McLeod thought of the computing power needed to study earthquakes—and perhaps some day being able to predict their occurrence—he thought of classical music. Not in the sense that a symphony orchestra's crescendos might replicate the rolling power of the fault lines rubbing against each other, or even that classical music might have some hidden link to the ebb and flow of plate tectonics. No, McLeod was thinking in terms of data, tons of data, and how to manage that data in real time.

McLeod, a professor of computer science at the University of Southern California (USC), is part of a research team called QuakeSim. A joint project between NASA and researchers at six universities, QuakeSim is aiming to create computer models that may unlock the mysteries of where earthquakes might occur and when. As part of the project, QuakeSim researchers are pushing the envelope of supercomputing by connecting many computers in complex grid networks.

McLeod needed to replicate the meta-data that would have to be processed in the QuakeSim project, so he came up with a plan to place a symphony conductor in Boston, an orchestra in Miami, and an audience in Phoenix. The experiment last spring sought to seamlessly use network grid systems among computers to transmit the audio and video data at high bandwidth among the three cities to make it appear they were all in the same room, in real time.

“It was interesting, because we even calculated that the speed of light in sending the data across the country was similar in time to the conductor hearing the sounds of the violin section across the room,” says McLeod, who studied computer science and electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “How this relates to the earthquake research is that we need software systems and grid computing systems that can manage huge amounts of data. There will be ground sensors and satellite imaging systems that will require sophisticated models and supercomputing. One of the keys in our research is linking the supercomputing through grids.”

The QuakeSim project hopes to use supercomputing and better data management to create models to more fully understand the movement of the Earth's plates. The example is weather prediction, where use of radar systems, satellite technology, and computer models have allowed weather forecasters to develop much better accuracy in the past decade. “It's not like the weather forecasters suddenly became so much smarter overnight,” says USC's McLeod. “What happened with weather predicting is that they were able to use more data and the processing of that data to greatly improve their prediction ability.

“The problem with earthquake prediction is that we have never been able to accurately measure what is happening below the ground,” says McLeod. “But technology is allowing us to mine more data, and it is becoming richer and more accurate. My guess is that we may never be able to pinpoint an earthquake happening in the next three minutes on a certain fault line, but we may be able to pinpoint a region and predict areas that may be hazardous in the next three months.”

The QuakeSim team will use ground- and space-based data collection points that will measure movements happening in distances measured in millimeters on time scales of minutes to thousands of years. The study of the data will, they hope, yield relationships between fault lines, the influence of “quiet” plate motions that do not result in earthquakes, and the relationships between earthquakes on a historical basis. The team hopes to determine whether an earthquake on one fault line has a future effect on another fault line.

Much of the work will be “hind-based” research, meaning the researchers will collect data on earthquakes, and then go back in time to see if any movements occurred with regularity at certain intervals before the earthquakes started. Any commonalties, however minute, might prove to be the key to predicting earthquakes with some accuracy.

“Our goals are to be able to create models that study faults in terms of meters and not kilometers,” says Andrea Donnellan, QuakeSim principal investigator, and deputy manager of the Earth science division for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Ca. “Trying to understand the strain that builds up, how faults fail—all of this is very subtle data that needs sophisticated simulation models and high-performance supercomputers.”

USC's McLeod estimates that the team needs to manage data that will be coming in at a gigabit per second. In recent tests, the QuakeSim team has been able to model earthquake faults by calculating about 15,000 finite elements through 500 time steps in eight hours of real time. By June of 2004, the team hopes to be able to calculate 400,000 elements through 50,000 time steps in 40 hours.

One of the keys to the computing research being done by the QuakeSim team is the availability of the unified code that is being developed to run on everything from a supercomputer to a Macintosh. That is important for researchers and educators, because “if you want to work out a simple model just to build up your intuition about something, you want to do that on a local machine—a supercomputer would be overkill,” says Donnellan. The QuakeSim software will be available on the Web by the fall of 2004. Users will be able to access it at

The availability of the software to researchers around the country is going to have a great educational component, says John Rundle, an interdisciplinary professor of physics, civil and environmental engineering, and geology, and director of the Center for Computational Science and Engineering at the University of California-Davis.

“There will be some models created that will be major advances in the state of the art, and we will understand to a much better degree, new ways of Web computing,” Rundle says. “There will be numerous Web-based educational opportunities for studying the interconnectivity of the grid of thousands of computers. My view is that we are going to eventually be able to use this technology to really advance the prospects of predicting earthquakes.”
Another computer scientist working on the project, Indiana University professor Geoffrey Fox, who heads the school's Community Grids Lab, agrees that the QuakeSim research is going to yield great education dividends: “We are building the software infrastructure that will allow us new ways to manage meta-data,” he says.

Mission Unpredictable

But whether the ability to predict earthquakes—aided by gigabits of data and the latest supercomputing power—is even possible is up for debate. “So far, prediction has been a complete failure,” says Les Youd, a Brigham Young University professor of civil engineering studying ways to safeguard buildings against earthquake aftereffects. “We just haven't found the key yet. Can they find it? It is going to be very difficult. Sometimes there is seismic activity before a quake, and sometimes there isn't.”

And the problem is what to do with such predictive information. “If you are able to say that an earthquake might occur over 10-mile area during the next three months, what should the people who live there do?” Youd asks. “People can't move out. And they can't do major construction projects to adequately reinforce a building against a quake. My guess is that people might put grandma's china away and maybe bolt the antique grandfather clock down.”

Youd also points out that earthquake prediction had better become a very exact science before any group tries to make their prediction public. He says that some people may have trouble selling their houses if they are in a zone designated as being at high risk, and insurance rates may become overly expensive for those property owners. “There are economic effects that have to be studied,” Youd says.

One of the economic effects that is undisputed is the amount of damage earthquakes cause. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates earthquake damage to property at more than $4 billion a year in the United States alone. Earthquake experts agree that a reliable predicting process would help lower the property damage significantly.

John LeBrecque, Manager of the Solid Earth and Natural Hazards Section in NASA's Office of Earth Science, thinks the time is right to invest in the funding of research in earthquake prediction. LeBrecque says NASA is currently deciding whether to launch a dedicated satellite to study earthquake activity in conjunction with the QuakeSim research, and the $500 million project “is my program's highest priority.” But LeBrecque admits that the funding for such a satellite is in limbo as Congress decides how to rework NASA funding in the wake of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

“I think we have to come to the realization that plate tectonics is the weather of the solid Earth,” says LeBrecque. “We can currently measure continental motion to within 100 microns a year. But I know if we invested an equivalent amount of money in earthquake research as we have in weather prediction, we would be much further down the road than we are today.”

And for USC's McLeod, the QuakeSim project can be seen on different levels. On the one hand he says, “In 10 years time, we will probably be able to tell people they will be hit by a major earthquake within a certain time frame.” On the other hand, even if the predicting aspect fails to pan out, the research into computing will have lasting effects for computer researchers and educators.

“We are going to push the limits of what can be done with grid networks and supercomputing abilities,” McLeod says. “We are going to be able to deal with multiple sources of information and make some sense out of it and we are going to make progress in everything from processing sensor information to using Web pages. It will take human intelligence to make sense of this data, but we hope we can use this research to help crisis management people as they deal with the prospect of a major earthquake.”

Dan McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.
He can be reached at


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