ENC partners with NASA to create earthquake forecasting technology

March 5, 2018

original 2017 summer research group

Four ENC students and graduates are flying to Haiti at the end of the month to test new earthquake forecasting technology with the NASA Ames Research Center.

ENC’s science department began researching earthquake prediction in 2010 after the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti caused devastation throughout the country. ENC professor Dr. Pierrre-Richard Cornely wanted to track changes in the atmosphere with the hope of being able to forecast earthquakes sooner.

It wasn’t until Cornely attended a conference in 2013, that the possibility of working with NASA became an option.

“There, I had met Friedemann Freund [with NASA Ames]. He came to listen to my presentation [about our research] and we got to talking and ever since then we’ve been working together trying to do something in Haiti or California,” Cornely said.

In 2016, NASA Ames reached out to Cornely to partner with the science and technology division. This gave the students access to 40 years of research already conducted by NASA Ames. With this information, the students were able to design a system that can measure electric potential, temperature, pressure and relative humidity, air ionization, epi-conductivity and magnetic field. According to Cornely, the system forecasted an earthquake two months before it occurred using simulations with real data. The latest an earthquake was forecasted during simulations was eight hours before.

“The primary purpose of this is warning and evacuation,” Cornely said. “We don’t have a universal timeline for when we can see [an earthquake coming], but we should be able to see it in time enough for people to get out of the place.”

At the end of the month, four of the original members of the research group will install three of the systems in three different towns in Haiti. These towns had over 120 seismic events within the last six months. After installation, the students will return to ENC where they will analyze the data the systems collect. Cornely said he expects they will be able to forecast an earthquake within the first six to eight months after installation.

earthquake forecasting system

Cornely said that if they are able to prove the system works, the Haitian government will then fund the installation of 30 to 40 more systems. ENC students would continue to analyze the data and new students would be able to get involved with the research each year.

“I think it could be huge,” Cornely said. “It could open the door for us to have earthquake research here, open doors for grants from institutions. In my mind, even if this was not to come to par with what we’re saying, this would still be significant for us being such a small school — that we are involved in such top of the line research activities.”

One of the graduates going on the trip, William Malas, said he is also excited to be involved in such an exciting project.

“It isn’t often that you are able to either be in college or right out of college and be on the forefront of research and can actually help out and improve that research,” he said. “If you had talked to me a couple years ago about earthquakes and total electron content, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start, but today, I can look at a problem and know where to start to fix the problem.”

Another graduate, Andres Biondi, agreed that it is surprising how much he’s learned from working on this research.

“What has surprised me the most about this project, is the amount of knowledge you can gain in different areas,” he said. “I graduated from ENC with a BS in Physics, but with this project I was able to immerse myself in different areas like engineering. This has allowed me to gain technical experience which will be very useful in my future.”

Cornely said he is excited about the potential of the project and is proud of how far it’s come already.

“Earthquake has been a very difficult problem and most people have kind of washed their hands of it,” he said. “In less than 4 years, we’ve shown that the potential is definitely there.”