NASA’s ‘Quest for Quakes’ seeks evidence of link between EMP and earthquakes

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NASA has announced a new competition dubbed ‘Quest for Quakes’ through which it is looking for innovative algorithms that will help find evidence to support the theory that electromagnetic pulses (EMP) may precede an earthquake.

The two-week challenge calls for interested developers to come up with algorithms that will be able to search through data and identify electromagnetic pulses that may precede an earthquake. Researchers have speculated for quite some time now that EMPs originate from the ground near earthquake epicenters and these can be used as warning signals to alert people in the area.

“Developing a reliable approach that can separate potential earthquake-induced electromagnetic pulses from the myriad of natural and anthropogenic sources has been a significant challenge,” said Craig Dobson, program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We look forward to seeing the innovative ideas from this competition and learning more about this controversial phenomenon.”

Quest for Quakes

Interested developers can submit their entries starting today (July 27 at 1 p.m. ET) through to August 9 at 1 p.m. ET.

All contestants will be provided with EMP signal data collected over three-month periods from multiple sensors in the proximity of past earthquakes. Control data with no earthquakes also will be included.

Coders will have two weeks to develop a new approach to extract the signals and identify potential earthquake precursors. The individuals or teams developing winning approaches will share a $25,000 prize.

Though researchers have long speculated that electromagnetic pulses are precursors to earthquakes, this relation has been contested for years from scientists on the other side of the aisle.

Researchers have been looking into the causes of distinct ultra-low frequency EMPs emanating from the ground near earthquake epicenters in the weeks leading up to some moderate and large events.

One theory suggests that fracturing rock in the Earth’s crust creates an electrical charge pulse that travels to the land surface and manifests itself as a small change in the local magnetic field. However, there are a number of natural and human-made electromagnetic ‘noise’ sources, such as lightning, solar storms, commuter trains, and traffic, that can mask or mimic EMPs and could be associated with earthquakes.

The data for this competition was provided by the QuakeFinder group, a humanitarian research and development project by Stellar Solutions, Inc., Palo Alto, California. QuakeFinder has 125 sensors in California and 40 sensor suites around the world. These ultra-low frequency magnetometers collect and transmit high-rate data to Stellar Solutions’ data center for management and evaluation. Over 65 terabytes of data have been collected from sensors along the San Andreas fault and other faults in California, Chile, Peru, Greece, Indonesia and Taiwan.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) has contributed a research grant for approximately three terabytes of high-frequency magnetometer data and computational resources to be used by contestants.

“The “Quest for Quakes” contest is a great example of how the AWS Cloud infrastructure is ideal for many different research and scientific workloads,” said Jamie Kinney, AWS senior manager for scientific computing. “We are looking forward to the innovative applications that contestants develop to address this real-world challenge and may also save lives.”

The ”Quest for Quakes” challenge is managed by the NASA Tournament Lab established by NASA and the Crowd Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University in 2010 to create the most innovative, efficient and optimal solutions for specific, real-world challenges being faced by NASA researchers. The lab is using Appirio’s topcoder.com crowdsourcing service to host the challenge, which is open to the public and the more than 815,000 members of the topcoder community.