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Earthquake early warning system may indicate quakes weeks before

Published by under Cosmos,News categories on July 14, 2008

Highway struture collapsed at Kobe EarthquakeThe project is based on a controversial theory that may gain traction in light of new findings described in a leaked NASA memo about the May 12 earthquake in China’s Sichuan province, when NASA caught early signs of China quake. The researchers hope to create a global network of roughly 20 satellites that would scan for telltale activity that some scientists (and old wives) say precedes large earthquakes.

The goal is to create an early warning system that would give up to two weeks notice before a quake anywhere in the world, potentially saving thousands of lives. Current detection systems can give about a maximum of one minute’s notice before a major quake and are prone to false alarms.

The proposed, dishwasher-sized satellites could be deployed in two years and would monitor several distinct phenomena, all of which began long ago deep inside the Earth, explained NASA researcher Friedemann Freund, a leading proponent of the theory the project is based on.

At some point, said Freund, much of Earth’s rock has soaked up water and later been exposed to extreme heat and pressure inside the Earth. Those conditions break apart the water and create the electrically conductive crystals that exist inside most rocks as well as by products such as oxygen.

As pressure builds before an earthquake, Freund’s theory goes, the oxygen molecules inside the rocks undergo chemical reactions, creating a positive electrical charge that radiates out toward the Earth’s surface.

“It’s similar to how an electrical charge radiates through a battery,” said Freund. The charge creates a subtle fluorescent, infrared glow and a magnetic field one to two weeks before a major earthquake. That light shines into space, said Freund, where satellites can register the change.

Low-resolution thermal cameras aboard the proposed satellites would scan the Earth to detect earthquake precursors, said Eves. The positively charged magnet creates a dimple, up to 12 miles deep, in the Earth’s atmosphere by attracting negatively charged ions from as far away as 372 miles above the surface of the Earth.

To detect this ionospheric dimpling, the satellites would monitor the existing Global Positioning Satellite System with three small GPS antennas on its side. As each GPS satellite comes up over the horizon, its signal would pass through the ionosphere. Any dimpling would change that signal.

The theory is not without skeptics, including the United States Geologic Survey’s Mike Blanpied and other geologists interviewed by Discovery News.

“As far as I know, there is no published research to suggest that this will work,” said Blanpied, who is with the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program. Criticisms and past failures of other earthquake detection systems don’t deter the researchers, however. Freund has already put $1 million of his own money into the satellite project.

Other proponents expect new research confirming their theory will appear later this summer, based on a leaked memo written by Dimitar Ouzounov, a NASA-funded researcher at George Mason University. On May 2, 2008, Ouzounov was looking for these same infrared light sources and found one over Sichuan province. Ouzounov sent a memo to colleagues reporting his finding, which he said was later leaked to the press.

On May 12 a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck the Chinese province, killing thousands. Ouzounov and his colleagues are currently preparing a paper detailing the Sichuan event, he told Discovery News. They hope it will be accepted for publication later this summer.


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