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Stanford Shows How Fiber Optics Might Enable Global Quake-Warning Network

STANFORD (KPIX) -- A web of fiber optic cables beneath the Stanford University campus is doing more than transferring data -- it's part of an earthquake monitoring network that may help scientists implement a quake early-warning system.

Miles of fiber-optic cables have been buried under the Stanford campus for years. They transmit digital data and Internet traffic at high speed to the students and faculty.

Stanford Geophysics Prof. Biondo Biondi
Stanford researcher Biondo Biondi has developed a fiber-optic-cable-based seismic detector. (CBS)

Geophysics professor Biondo Biondi repurposed some of those cables, along with an existing underground network of sensors, to create a virtual three-mile-long, figure-eight-shape subterranean seismometer.

A breakthrough came when Biondi discovered that the fiber wires themselves could detect seismic vibrations.

Last year, Prof. Biondi and graduate assistant Eileen Martin began experimenting with the fiber optic array and they have recorded about 800 seismic events since then. The tremors ranged from imperceptibly-tiny to the major 8.1-magnitude Chiapas quake in Mexico last month.

Perhaps the most promising part of their research is the fiber array's ability to record the faint, fastest waves from a distant quake -- called P waves -- which arrive before the ground begins shaking.

Could this someday become part of a relatively cheap and ubiquitous earthquake early-warning system? Prof. Biondi thinks it's possible.

"The hope for this technology is to have large-scale seismic observatories everywhere in the world," Biondi said.

Fiber-optic networks are being installed across oceans and even in remote jungles -- perhaps one day to become part of a global, glass ear always listening for the next quake.

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