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Pasadena, Calif., Uses Fiber Network to Monitor Earthquakes

The city has entered into a five-year partnership with Caltech, which will use an innovative new research field to collect mountains of data on earthquake activity for public safety applications.

earthquake road damage
Shutterstock/Naypong Studio
The city of Pasadena, Calif., plans to use its existing network of fiber-optic cables to help researchers at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) study regional earthquake activity. 

The city recently entered into a five-year contract with the school's Seismological Laboratory, which specializes in collecting and analyzing data related to the dynamics and structure of the Earth. 

A research team with the lab, led by assistant professor of geophysics Zhongwen Zhan, will use the relatively new field of Digital Acoustic Sensing (DAS) for its research. DAS uses laser pulses submitted through fiber optics to sense underground activity. 

This science lends itself to emergency preparedness in a unique way: by understanding the underground landscape researchers can map geographic vulnerabilities, locating areas that might be more predisposed to damage during a seismic event. This allows officials to better prepare those areas of their community for a potential event much further in advance. 

The lab originally began limited testing with the city's network in 2018, using its results to apply for and garner a National Science Foundation grant for further research. 

Now, armed with the federal grant and the partnership with the city, Zhan and his team will gain access to strands of the city's cables, which currently stretch in a large, 25-mile loop around the city and assist with its utility and data networks. The DAS will provide exponentially more data than the city's current setup — amounting to something like 30,000 seismometers.  

"It's a 2,000-times increase [in our capabilities], just by tapping into an unused cable network," said Zhan, speaking with Government Technology

With this expanded power to collect and analyze data, much more of the subterranean landscape — the fault lines and other vulnerabilities — can be understood, Zhan said. 

"The results of what [Zhan] was able to capture and show was amazing," said Phillip Leclair, the city's chief information officer. "What it stands to provide is a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, or block-by-block basis [to know] what kind of damage could be taking place [in the event of an earthquake]. It maps out the underlying geology of the city." 

"We're going to really map in high resolution the structure around the city ... and when that data is shared with city managers and first responders, we're going to really be able to be prepared for a big earthquake in the future," Zhan said.    

Leclair said the role of his office will be to facilitate use of the city's fiber optics: provisioning it, making sure it's configured and spliced in a way that is supportive of the research and finding the pathways around the city that Caltech can use. 

Eventually, the city hopes to use the data collected by Zhan and his team to deliver educational outreach at schools and local libraries so that the public can benefit from the information. 

Zhan said he also hopes the partnership between Caltech and Pasadena will hopefully prove as a model for further research of this kind. 

"This has been a great experience and I think it will be a good example for other cities in Southern California and in cities throughout the world," he said.  

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.
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