The Rumble at the End of the Tunnel

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Deep in a concrete-lined 60-foot-long tunnel underneath the desert in the Arabian emirate of Sharjah, the only sound is the constant humming from a set of metal boxes with wires poking out. The strange gadgets are detecting delicate vibrations of distant earthquakes and transmitting them continually via an international phone line. Not a soul is in sight, and the mysterious whirring continues. In this quiet niche, scientists strain to hear the faint echoes of geological activity around the planet.

In the tunnel is one of the latest installations of Project IDA, the International Deployment of Accelerometers, a global network of seismographic stations operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, to observe and collect data on earthquakes. The goal is to monitor Earth’s sudden movements to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how the planet shakes, rattles, and rolls.

In March, Peter Davis, Project IDA’s executive director and a seismologist

at Scripps’ Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, returned to the emirate to officially dedicate the newest installation in the seismic network. It was six years earlier when he first collaborated with a national team of earth scientists and members of the faculty of the University of Sharjah, IDA’s host university in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to seek a suitable site to establish a station to monitor the region surrounding Sharjah, a vast expanse of red sand desert with sandy plains and mountains tucked between the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The region is one of the most seismically active in the world.

“This is a critical region of interest to seismologists to help understand earthquake activity in this part of the world,” said Davis.  “Although there is very little seismic activity within the UAE itself, there are many earthquakes in the greater Gulf region, especially across the Arabian Sea in Iran as well as south in the Gulf of Aden and along the Red Sea. Sharjah is in the midst of this region and is giving us a much broader view of the larger area.”

Although the unfamiliar name of Sharjah may conjure up images of a remote desert with wandering shepherds blazing in the beating heat, this emirate is anything but. A bustling metropolis of learning and arts, Sharjah is an academic center at the intersection of ancient cultural traditions and contemporary intellectual currents. It is the third largest of the seven states that form the United Arab Emirates, a federation comprising a geographic area slightly smaller than the state of Maine.

On his first day in Sharjah in 2005, Davis’ mission was interrupted by a rattling earthquake. He and his host, Prof. Abdallah Shanableh, appeared on local television to explain the seismic activity. One viewer was the ruler of Sharjah, His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qassimi, whose approval of the seismic network project was required. His Highness joined the science team and helped select the station's site in the small village of Wadi al Helo, an area with a solid base of volcanic rock and limestone that provides the stability necessary to record only earth movements and not the vibrations from wind, sandstorms, or other local rattles. To provide the most ideal setting, the Sheikh paid for the construction of a customized tunnel in the side of a mountain to place the sensitive instruments, the first tunnel commissioned solely for an IDA station.

Put into operation in May 2009, this recent addition to the seismic monitoring network has been relaying data uninterrupted since the purring of the instruments first began. The Sharjah station has joined a global network of 41 other stations in 26 countries.

To cover the planet on a global scale, Project IDA was formed at Scripps Oceanography in 1975 and was named for its principal financial supporters, Ida and Cecil Green, a geophysicist and a founder of Texas Instruments. Project IDA is now a vital component of the larger U.S.-based Global Seismographic Network (GSN) funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and operated by the USGS and IRIS, a consortium of more than 100 U.S. universities operating science facilities for the acquisition, management, and distribution of seismological data. IRIS programs contribute first and foremost to scholarly research and education, but GSN data are highly valued for earthquake hazard mitigation and nuclear test ban treaty verification.  A subset of IDA stations send their data streams to the UN’s Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna where the information is used to monitor adherence to nuclear test ban treaties. When a nuclear device is detonated underground, the resulting shock wave can be detected by seismic instruments over great distances.

Recently, U.S. federal support from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is enabling the global network to modernize its seismic equipment to provide upgraded and state-of-the-art instruments to continue this vital monitoring of Earth’s most sensitive and destructive rumbling.      

Data acquired by the IDA network also contribute to hazard mitigation and life-saving warning systems. IDA data are used by NOAA to issue tsunami warnings. When large earthquakes occur at sea, they may generate large seismic sea waves that pose great danger to coastal communities. Prompt transmission of the seismic data permits experts to locate earthquakes quickly, assess the likelihood they have generated a tsunami, and predict when the destructive wave may arrive. Such predictions have saved numerous lives. IDA data also assist with emergency response as the prompt and accurate location of earthquakes allows emergency personnel to better plan responses to disasters that occur, especially in remote regions of the world.

And back in Sharjah, deep in the tunnel in the desert, although all seems quiet and peaceful, the instruments are relentlessly taking the pulse of the planet and relaying crucial data moment by moment to scientists around the world.

 

-- Cindy Clark

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