Century-old technology inspires early warning method for detecting tsunamis and earthquakes

Newswise – A million miles of fiber optic cables lie on the ocean floor, carrying telecommunications signals across vast stretches of ocean to keep the world connected. A new international collaboration, including experts from the University of Texas at Austin, aims to turn them into a global early warning system for tsunamis and earthquakes, as well as a network of sensors to monitor changes unexplained temperature.

Researchers from the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Institute of Geophysics are part of a team developing Science Monitoring and Reliable Telecommunications (SMART) cables, which will consist of sensors that “snap” onto existing and expanding submarine telecommunications network infrastructure. . The sensors will enable low-cost global observation of the ocean depths to detect temperature, pressure and seismic acceleration – the rate of change of Earth’s natural vibrations. The data provided could inform scientists of imminent undersea earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, as well as track any long-term changes in the state of the ocean.

“This brilliant project will transform the practical cables that connect communications and commerce into a global science instrument of critical importance to every person on Earth,” said Robert Kirshner, science program director at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The effort will support the joint UN SMART Cables Task Force which is working to bring the concept of SMART Cables to life by bringing together experts from around the world and across disciplines. The working group is chaired by the project’s principal investigator, Bruce Howe of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

The role of the Oden Institute in this project, according to Patrick Heimbach of the Computational Research in Ice and Ocean Systems group (CRIOS), and professor at UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences, is to test the ability of proposed SMART cables to adequately answer questions from oceanographers and geophysicists. Researchers will conduct a series of numerical simulations called observing system simulation experiments that will determine exactly what quality of data can be extracted from SMART cable observations and how to optimize it. Initially targeting a region around the island nations of Vanuatu and New Caledonia, a long-term goal is to develop a simulation framework that will support the design of networks on a global scale to reveal globally significant processes behind changes. oceanic.

“We are focusing here on bottom pressure, temperature and acoustic data, and their value for monitoring ocean climate,” explained Heimbach, who studies global ocean circulation and its role in climate.

More than 70% of all volcanic eruptions occur under the sea, hidden from view from scientists by thousands of feet of water. When hot magma comes into direct contact with cold ocean waters, violent explosions, known as “fuel-coolant interaction,” can lead to extreme reactions, similar to weapons-grade chemical explosions. .

The international effort could not have been more timely. A month after the project was launched, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano in the Southwest Pacific exploded, causing a sonic boom heard thousands of miles away, hurling ash 100,000 feet into the sky, breaking a undersea telecommunications cable and triggering a tsunami whose effects were felt as far away as the west coast of the United States.

“This is something no one has seen before, so even with additional instruments, it would still have been very difficult to anticipate what might happen,” said task force member Laura Wallace, a researcher at the University of Texas Institute of Geophysics and GNS Science. New Zealand which studies the occurrence of earthquakes in submarine subduction zones, which generate the largest earthquakes and tsunamis in the world.

“I think more comprehensive global monitoring of the seabed, in terms of seafloor pressure and seismology, would have provided a better understanding of the situation much more quickly than we did in this event.”

The initiative, funded by the Moore Foundation, includes experts from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Louisiana State University, California Institute of Technology, data systems under- Marines, Los Alamos National Laboratory, GNS Science, University of Otago (New Zealand), Institute for Research and Sustainable Development, National University of Vanuatu, Department of Meteorology and Geohazards of Vanuatu, Community (SPC) and International Tsunami Information Centre.

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