University of Texas at Austin: Century-Old Technology Inspires Method for Early Warning Tsunami and Earthquake Detection

A million kilometers of fiber optic cable lie on the ocean floor, carrying telecommunication signals across vast stretches of ocean to keep the whole 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 sensor array for monitoring unexplained temperature changes.

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

This brilliant project will transform the practical cables that link communications and commerce into a world-wide scientific instrument of profound importance to every person on Earth.

— Robert Kirshner, The Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation
The effort will support the UN’s SMART Cables Joint Task Force working to bring the SMART cables concept to fruition by uniting experts from around the world and across disciplines. The task force is chaired by the project’s lead investigator, Bruce Howe of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

The Oden Institute’s role 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 proposed SMART Cables’ ability to adequately address the questions of oceanographers and geophysicists. Researchers will conduct a series of numerical simulations called Observing System Simulation Experiments which will determine just what quality of data can be taken from the SMART Cables 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 global-scale network design to reveal globally important processes behind ocean change.

“Our focus here is on bottom pressure, temperature, and acoustic data, and their value for ocean climate monitoring,” explained Heimbach, who studies the global circulation of the ocean and its role in climate.

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