Volunteers across southern California are helping the U.S. Geological Survey keep track of seismic movement. Through the NetQuakes program, families are installing shoe-box sized sensors in their homes. These monitors measure ground movement and then send measurements to the USGS over the Internet.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
From member station KPCC, Alex Cohen has more.
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ALEX COHEN: It's homework time at the McDaniels residence in a Southern California suburb called Arcadia. Chuck McDaniels, a computer networks manager, checks in with his son Danny.
CHUCK MCDANIELS: Did you get the size of the poster?
DANNY MCDANIELS: Yeah. I think it's 11 by 14,
COHEN: Until you go into the garage, you wouldn't know that Chuck McDaniels' home is part of an innovative seismic system. But there, amid buckets of paint and lawn food, is a metal box.
MCDANIELS: It's blue and it is bolted to the floor of my garage. About the size of a loaf of bread, I would say.
COHEN: This box is called a NetQuakes seismograph. It looks low-tech, like something you might find at your local Radio Shack. But it's actually a Swiss- made product, worth several thousand dollars, equipped with powerful sensors.
DOUG GIVEN: And these sensors actually have three components.
COHEN: Doug Given is with the U.S. Geological Survey.
GIVEN: They measure how much the ground has moved north south, east and west and up and down. And in those three dimensions that way we can get the full range of ground motions in every single direction.
COHEN: Each NetQuakes device sends its seismic readings back to the Geological Survey over the Internet. Doug Given says that helps researchers achieve a better understanding for earthquakes - from the tiniest temblor to a massive event like the recent one in Japan.
GIVEN: As earthquakes occur, each one is a moment in time when we can learn a lot about the way the earth works and how we can protect people from earthquakes, and so we don't want to miss those opportunities as they occur.
COHEN: Given says there are some incredibly pricey, more sensitive seismic monitors installed throughout California. But the Survey wanted to get a more thorough picture of the region - especially in urban areas. So the agency decided to look for so-called citizen scientists willing to house one of the less expensive NetQuakes boxes.
GIVEN: We asked people to volunteer and to date we've had more than 1,600 people volunteer to host these devices.
COHEN: And that's just for 33 spots. Given says private homes are ideal because there are no concerns about environmental restrictions or going through the red tape of landowners, like the U.S. Forest Service.
GIVEN: And should it break, rather than sending one of our technicians on a daylong trip to drive out and replace the instrument, instead we can mail them a new one, they'll swap it out and mail us the old, busted unit.
COHEN: Chuck McDaniels says he'd love his NetQuakes box to be used as part of an earthquake notification system, like the one triggered in Sendai, Japan.
MCDANIELS: When you think of if you're prepared for something that you can hopefully take some reasonable steps to protect people and things, to be able to be a part of that would be really great.
COHEN: For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen.
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