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SMU team exploits unused fiber cables to address earthquake D

SMU team exploits unused fiber cables to address earthquake D
SMU team exploits unused fiber cables to address earthquake D

 


DALLAS (SMU) – After a devastating earthquake struck her childhood in the Gujarat region of her native India, Jyoti Sharma often thought about creating an earthquake early warning system. She is now a postdoctoral fellow at SMU, working with SMU professor Stephen Arrowsmith to transform the university's network of unused telecommunications and computer fiber into a state-of-the-art seismic system.

Beneath SMU's lawns and red brick buildings lie thousands of unused fiber optic cables — “dark fiber” — destined for future use. Working with SMU's Office of Information Technology, Sharma and Arrowsmith exploit imperfections in communications fibers to detect seismic vibrations, both near and far.

It's called distributed acoustic sensing — or DAS, for short. Imagine being able to listen to everything that happens over a broadband fiber network. DAS makes this possible, sending laser pulses through the fiber while scattering small portions of that light back to an interpretive device called an interrogator.

Data collected by a DAS investigator shows when fibers are compressed or stretched due to vibration caused by an earthquake or small vibrations from everyday traffic.

Traditionally, scientists used seismometers to measure vibrations in the Earth's surface. SMU faculty use seismometers for everything from measuring regional seismic activity to monitoring compliance with nuclear testing treaties. Connecting DAS to dark fiber can extend the range of earthquake monitoring much wider than currently covered by seismometers, and can be easily used in densely populated urban areas.

Sharma, who is affiliated with the Earthquake Research Institute in Gujarat, India, met Arrowsmith at a webinar during the COVID-19 pandemic, and was inspired by his efforts to use DAS to detect earthquakes.

“I definitely plan to use DAS in seismically active areas in India, especially in Kutch, Gujarat, which witnesses constant seismic activity,” Sharma said. “DAS provides ease of deployment in various geological terrains, enables us to understand fiber stress in challenging environments, and holds great potential in early warning systems by detecting even the smallest seismic and acoustic signals.”

Arrowsmith sees DAS as not a replacement for traditional seismometers, but rather a valuable complement. The researchers faced the unique challenge of processing DAS data sets, which are different from recordings taken by seismometers and are much larger. Sharma uses SMU's high-performance computing cluster to handle the massive volume of data.

“Having access to dark fiber and a computer that can run this much data puts us in a good position to understand DAS for future uses,” Arrowsmith said. “There is a trend in the geosciences to focus more on environmental and urban seismology, and DAS allows SMU to conduct research in those areas.”

For Sharma, her childhood hope of creating a new earthquake early warning system has become a reality. She envisions a future in which DAS plays a much larger role in mitigating the impact of seismic activity.

About SMU

SMU is a nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU alumni, faculty, and more than 12,000 students at eight degree-granting colleges demonstrate entrepreneurial spirit as they drive change in their professions, their communities, and the world.

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