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14.06.2018 | 20:01
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LONDON, June 14, 2018 /PRNewswire/ --

Taking advantage of the vast undersea telecommunications cable infrastructure, a global network for underwater earthquakes could be implemented using laser-based techniques

Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRiM, Italy) have developed an innovative method of detecting underwater earthquakes, using undersea cables usually used for communication purposes.

Whilst approximately 70% of the surface of the Earth is covered by water, the large majority of earthquake monitoring stations are on land because it is too costly to install them on the sea bottom. A network of seafloor stations large enough to cover most of the Earth's waters is estimated to cost between $700 million and $1 billion. A large fraction of underwater earthquakes go undetected, limiting our ability to investigate the Earth's interior.

New research from NPL and INRiM, in collaboration with the British Geological Survey, and the University of Malta, detected earthquakes using land-based and underwater fibre optic links of lengths up to 535 km and ranging from 25 to 18,500 km from the earthquake's epicentre. Optical fibre has previously been used to transmit data between earthquake-detecting devices, but in the new method the fibre itself is used for detection. The researchers used the land-based and undersea cables as 'acoustic sensors' - detecting earthquake-induced vibrations along the length of the cable. By using this technique on the existing undersea telecommunications network, a global network for underwater earthquake monitoring could be implemented, without the need to install additional devices on the seafloor.

The undersea cable network, which currently accounts for over 1 million km of optical fibre, already spans the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and is rapidly expanding due to an exponential rise in mobile services and the Internet. Taking advantage of this vast network could enable the detection of huge numbers of underwater earthquakes that are currently missed as well as furthering our understanding of the Earth's interior. By integrating this approach with the current seismometer-based networks, the global earthquake monitoring infrastructure could be significantly expanded and strengthened, on both land and sea. Utilising the existing cable infrastructure means that the associated costs will be substantially lower than installing new sensors on the seafloor.

In the future, the technique could potentially even be used to ensure precious life-saving warning time in the event of tsunamis caused by underwater earthquakes, or even changes in volcanic structure. Although the innovation has not been tested in this area, the ability to detect underwater earthquakes close to the epicentre, rather than after they are picked up by on-land seismometers, presents an exciting and crucial future opportunity.

Giuseppe Marra, Senior Research Scientistat NPL and lead author on the paper, said:

"Detecting underwater earthquakes is crucial to understanding how our planet works, but installing a large array of ocean bottom sensors is a very challenging and expensive task. We have now discovered there is a solution at hand, which relies on existing infrastructure rather than on new installations. A great new tool for research in geophysics and other areas of science.

We made the first detection of seismic events whilst running frequency metrology experiments not designed to detect earthquakes. I am delighted to see two scientific areas, frequency metrology and seismology, meeting in such an unexpected way."

Davide Calonico, Principal Research Scientist at INRiM and Coordinator of the research, said:

"It is always a serendipity when techniques used in one branch of science can be so useful in another area. Here, established techniques for time and frequency metrology achieve new interesting results when applied to underwater seismology and sensing.

Our capability to measure the infinitesimal change in the length of the fibre using an ultra-stable laser almost in real-time has been crucial to exploit the underwater infrastructure of optical fibres used for telecommunications."

Dr JT Janssen, Director ofResearch at NPL, said:

"This work is testament to the importance of collaboration in innovative research projects. NPL is proud to have led scientists from the UK, Italy and Malta, in coming together to find a creative global solution to a world-wide problem that has long frustrated seismologists."

Dr Richard Luckett, Seismologist at the British Geological Survey, said:

"The potential of this method is huge. By using existing infrastructure, we can produce a wealth of new and important data. The ocean floor is currently poorly monitored seismically but is home to some of the most interesting geological processes on earth."

Dr Andrè Xuereb, Senior Lecturer in Physics at the University of Malta, said:

"This exciting collaboration with our colleagues in the UK and Italy gave rise to some exceptional results and solves a problem of global relevance. It shows the power of international collaborations and fundamental science research to overcome challenges and create new technologies."

Notes to editors

About NPL

NPL is the UK's National Measurement Institute, providing the measurement capability that underpins the UK's prosperity and quality of life.

From new antibiotics to tackle resistance and more effective cancer treatments, to secure quantum communications and superfast 5G, technological advances must be built on a foundation of reliable measurement to succeed. Building on over a century's worth of expertise, our science, engineering and technology provides this foundation and helps to make the impossible possible. We save lives, protect the environment and enable citizens to feel safe and secure, as well as support international trade and commercial innovation. As a national laboratory, our advice is always impartial and independent, meaning consumers, investors, policymakers and entrepreneurs can always rely on the work we do.

Based in Teddington, south-west London, NPL employs over 600 scientists. NPL also has regional bases across the UK, including at the University of Surrey, the University of Strathclyde, the University of Cambridge and the University of Huddersfield's3M Buckley Innovation Centre.

For more information visit: http://www.npl.co.uk

Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NPL

Follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/npldigital

Follow us on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/national-physical-laboratory


The Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRIM), based in Turin, is a public research centre acting as Italy's national metrology institute (NMI) and employing 200 people. INRIM realises, maintains, and develops the national reference standards of the measurement units of the International System (SI).

Basic and applied research in different fields - such as materials science, nanoscience, quantum optics, studies on the fundamental constants of physics - as well as the development of new measurement technologies and instruments enhance the metrology activity.

INRIM promotes education, in particular through a PhD course in Metrology.

In order to meet the needs of industry, the institute has a dedicated department at direct contact with the world of production, providing consultancy, calibration, and testing services.

For more information visit: http://www.inrim.it

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