Thursday, March 17, 2011

Computing has an Important Role to Play in Earthquake Preparedness and Response

When devastation as large as that currently happening in Japan occurs, it can be hard to know what to say or do. If you are like me, you have been reading the news daily (or more often), caught up in a mix of complicated reactions. This morning for example I watched computer generated weather simulations of possible flow patterns of radioactive contamination (via the BBC).  As the simulation looped over and over I couldn't help but be transfixed by one large multicolored plume as it slid like a mutant amoeba over Southern California. Right here in other words. The colors registered different levels of radiation. Computers generated those simulations and unsettling as they were, I'm glad to be able to see them. It is better to have knowledge from a reliable source than no knowledge, even when that knowledge is based on probabilities and a great deal of the unknown.

I was very grateful for computer science when the recent earthquake struck New Zealand. A friend lives in Christchurch and it was only a matter of a few nerve wracking days before a brief post appeared on Facebook telling all of us that she was ok - no doubt considerably freaked out, but ok. Thank you to the computer scientist creators of social networking.

The situation was very different in 2004 when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka and someone I know was very near the coast. It was over a week before we learned that he and his family were alive. There was no email access, no smart phones, no Facebook page, nothing but waiting and telephone calls to the US State Department (who were terrific by the way). The computing communication infrastructure either was not there to start with or had been completely disabled by the dual natural disasters of earthquake and tsunami.

Watching the developing situation in Japan, the triple disasters unfolding as nuclear contamination possibilities are added to realities of earthquake and tsumani, watching the weather models, I was reminded of the researchers around the world who work full time developing models of earthquake simulation and  who perform seismic hazard analysis. They work on these models so that we can know as much as possible about what can happen, how it can happen, how we can best prepare, where to erect buildings and other structures and how to protect them as best we can.

Developing 3-D and 4-D maps and models are classic computing problems of large scale data analysis: selecting and applying the "best" constraints, knowing that the model you develop will depend upon choices about possible epicenter (location of the earth directly above the underground origin of the earthquake), focal depth (how deep the origin is), magnitude (amount of energy released) and possible paths the seismic waves may follow. There are innumerable factors to include or leave out of this type of model such as local and regional variations, ground type, land masses, rock type...just for starters. It is all about improving probabilities and predictions.

The paths of seismic waves are not always what one might expect. For example, one reason Los Angeles gets hit so hard by some earthquakes on the famous San Andreas fault is because there is a natural "funnel" that directs ground motion directly into the city from a section of the fault well east of the city. Complex modeling and a solid knowledge of the land revealed this important information. 

You have to know your hardware, firmware and software; you have to know how to work with the latest and most sophisticated networks of high performance computing. Operating system, algorithm and programming language optimization. Databases to hold all those data and sophisticated networks to link the distributed grids of computers.

If you have an interest in earth science and scientific computing (you don't need expertise in both - this is where collaboration between fields comes in) then here is an area where you can work to make a difference in people's lives.

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