The seconds between the warning of an impending earthquake and the moment the quake hits can be the difference between life or death. In that time, automatic brakes can halt trains; people can duck for cover or rush for safety. But current warning systems aren’t always where they are needed, and scientists don’t fully understand what determines the size and location of earthquakes. Nearly 10,000 people were killed in earthquakes in 2015, the majority from the devastating Nepal quake. The federal government estimates that earthquakes cause $5.3 billion in damage per year to buildings in the U.S.
Ground-based sensors help warn of quakes, but they have their limits. Now, a group of researchers at Columbia University are taking measurement somewhere new: underwater. They’re designing a system that could lead to faster warnings for people living near areas affected by underwater earthquakes and tsunamis. If they succeed, they could help reduce the damage caused by these natural disasters and save many lives.
I recently visited a laboratory at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in Rockland County, New York, where a technician was testing pieces of the boxy, three-foot-long underwater seismometers under a microscope. The lab’s floor-to-ceiling shelves were stacked with bright yellow and orange parts that will have to endure crushing pressures on the ocean floor at depths of thousands of feet for years at a time.