Seattle Seismologists Get Feel for How Earthquake Early Warning Tech Will Work

Instruments in the Seattle Seahawks’ stadium record the intensity of football fans’ reactions and give online followers a 10-second “early warning.”

by News Staff / January 15, 2015
Seattle Seahawks fans celebrate amid a 31-17 victory against the Carolina Panthers in NFC Divisional Playoff action at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Jan. 10, 2015. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS)

When running back Marshawn Lynch led the Seattle Seahawks to victory with a 13-second run against the New Orleans Saints in the 2011 playoffs, the fan reaction in the stadium and subsequent vibrations were registered as a magnitude 1 or 2 earthquake at the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network a block away.

The event was dubbed the “12th Man Earthquake” and “Beast Quake,” since Lynch is called The Beast, and it got scientists thinking about what they would find if they put instruments closer to the action, right in the stadium.

Before Jan. 10’s playoff game at CenturyLink Field, University of Washington scientists with the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network installed two instruments in the stands and one near the playing field for this year’s playoff games. The instruments measure reactions by fans and another tool, called QuickShake, displays the vibrations within three seconds to scientists following on the network’s webpage. Since there was a 10-second delay in the broadcast of the game, fans and scientists following the webpage see a “Fan Quake” before they see the play on television. They know from the technology that something good has happened in the game before it is broadcast.

It’s a bit of an early look into the technology that will provide earthquake early warning systems. In an email, one of the seismologists, Steve Malone, professor emeritus for the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, said what the public would see in an earthquake early warning system is different from what participants in this experiment see, but this gives an idea of how real-time data can work.

Part of the experiment involves testing website traffic endurance and what impact thousands of users, such as during an earthquake, will have. During the first half of last Saturday’s game against the Carolina Panthers, the scientists started seeing dropouts in the number of users once that number reached 100. The problem was fixed at halftime, and the number of users reached 2,000 without problems in the second half.

In a blog post, Malone wrote that during a real earthquake social media will play a role in interpretations and responses to the data from the warning systems and that’s something researchers are looking at here too. “The real-time nature of reporting on a football game lends itself to rapid information broadcasting though different channels and also to immediate feedback from many interested parties. During a real earthquake or volcanic sequence, we need to be able to produce and distribute not only data and automated analysis but also interpretations and responses to legitimate questions and concerns.”

A 90-yard interception return for a touchdown by Kam Chancellor in the fourth quarter of the game against the Panthers (the Kam Quake), registered as the largest seismic activity during the game, which the Seahawks won, but there were no Beast Quake runs by Lynch this time. Seismologists will be at it again this Sunday when the Seahawks take on the Green Bay Packers.

This staff report was originally published by Emergency Management