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I live in the Bay Area, so I think about earthquakes a lot. I mean, maybe even more than the average person because I’m a bit obsessed with giant disasters and what I would do if I were to find myself in one, and so once I moved here I turned that from a very general obsession with various disasters like plane crashes and tornados and tsunamis to a very specific obsession with earthquakes.
As a state, California is basically guaranteed to experience a big (6.7 or higher) earthquake in the next 30 years. Scientists can’t really predict when an earthquake is going to happen, but they can examine historical data and geological surveys to tell us our relative chances over longer periods of time. The major faults of California are very well-studied, so we know that there’s about a 30% chance that the Big One is going to happen here in my neighborhood along the Hayward Fault, and a total 63% chance that it will happen along one of the many faults of the Bay Area. The predictions for Los Angeles are similar, but a little worse: they have a 67% chance that it’ll happen there, and they have a higher chance that it will be larger than 6.7 magnitude.
It’s not just California that geologists are studying, though. There’s a global network of seismological data that is constantly being updated, because our planet’s plates are constantly moving, rubbing up against each other, pushing together, and pulling apart. I use an app on my phone called QuakeFeed — it’s free, this isn’t an ad — and it shows me all of the most recent earthquakes recorded around the world.
Considering that I get alerts about earthquakes that happen literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean without so much as a deserted island around, I was shocked recently to realize that there are quite large gaps in our understanding and monitoring of earthquakes around the world.
I recently stumbled across Raspberry Shake, and I found it absolutely delightful for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a low-cost seismograph that is able to be used by an absolute amateur. Citizen science at its finest: they start at under $500 and we can put them anywhere, including in schools where kids can learn about seismology, geology, and technology. And then there’s the name — it runs on the incredibly efficient Raspberry Pi processor, a simple, easy-to-use, tiny, and inexpensive computer. So they called it Raspberry Shake. Jeez, that’s adorable.
And here’s the other reason I love it — it made me curious why there would be a need for this outside of pure educational opportunities, and I found a pilot study (which is in preprint so it hasn’t gone through peer review yet) that explained it to me very well. The researchers used Haiti as a test subject — back in January of 2010, Haiti experienced a devastating 7.0 earthquake. At that point in time, the authors point out that the country had “no seismic network, no in–country seismologist, no active fault map, no seismic hazard map, no microzonation” — that’s the idea where you build up your city in line with the geology of the area so that they’re as protected as possible from an earthquake. Haiti didn’t even have a building code. Because of all that, they’re still trying to recover from that quake nine years later.
Following the earthquake, both global and local governmental agencies set up earthquake monitoring stations in Haiti. By the time the next big earthquake hit in 2018, though, only one of those stations was even working. The 2010 earthquake financially devastated an already struggling country, and in its aftermath they didn’t have the money or the people to keep those stations operating.
It’s a testament to my privilege that with all the data on earthquakes I have at my fingertips, I didn’t even consider that there are places where it’s just not easy to set up research facilities to monitor what’s happening. That means they don’t have the historical data we have here, they don’t have the current data for small earthquakes that happen every day around Haiti, they don’t have all their faults clearly mapped out, and they don’t have anyone helping the public understand what earthquakes are, why they happen, and how citizens can be better prepared for the next one.
Enter the Raspberry Shake. The researchers installed nine of the little seismographs in homes and businesses around the country, teaching the people there how to use them and how to see their output. They managed to almost immediately start recording earthquakes that weren’t being recorded by any other monitoring station.
There are, of course, some downsides. 24/7 electricity and internet are hard to come by in Haiti, and also conditions aren’t always perfect for the seismograph to pick up earthquakes and not, say, construction or traffic. But both of those problems can be solved with overlap. The relative cheapness of the Shake means that it’s feasible to install them in hundreds of locations that overlap with one another, allowing recordings to happen even if some of them aren’t operational.
So through this system, developing countries like Haiti might be able to utilize citizen scientists who can set up a network of detectors that works better than the large, nationally-funded facilities. How cool is that?
And at the same time, the people running the detectors would be learning more about them, becoming actively engaged in what they’re doing. The researchers pointed out that the people they signed on to house the detectors had a lot of questions, including things like “can this predict earthquakes” (which it can’t, though it can eventually help us make long-term predictions and better prepare people for earthquakes). The researchers suggest an app with a friendly design that helps non-scientists understand what the machine does, pinging them with a cheery message whenever there’s a tiny quake that they can’t feel. That interaction would also allow such an app to give people regular tips on earthquake preparedness.
The researchers point out that Haitians are hungry for information — right now, that information is lacking and so they’re filling the gap with pseudoscience, as humans have done for millions of years. There are a lot of people who claim to be able to predict earthquakes, and they’re all full of shit. Actually understanding the science behind earthquakes could destroy that predatory industry, and replace it with helpful knowledge that can build a better, more stable country. I mean, literally more stable.
So yeah, Raspberry Shake is a cool idea I’m really glad they’re out there solving a problem that I didn’t even know existed. Go check them out and if you have $500 burning a hole in your pocket, pick one up! Tell them I sent you. Maybe I’ll get a freebie.