NASA Sets up Earthquake Monitoring System on Alaska High School

By MEGAN PETERSEN, Ketchikan Daily News | January 27, 2015

It’s not quite rocket science, but close enough, and closer to home – students in the Tribal Scholars Program began cutting-edge earthquake monitoring research in a partnership with NASA this past week.

It’s part of a new project called the Global Earthquake Forecasting System, where high school students maintain and interpret data with the goal of identifying early earthquake signals.

The GEFS platform was installed on the roof of Ketchikan High School and started collecting data Jan. 16. The sensors in the platform track levels of pre-earthquake signals, including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, as well as electrical currents, according to Ron Fortunato of Trillium Learning, an education outreach organization that connects professional and student researchers.

When two tectonic plates or faults move or collide, it creates both an electrical current and an earthquake, according to Fortunato. But the electrical current – along with the gases it creates when it passes through biological material – can be measured by sensors minutes or even hours before the earthquake itself happens.

These pre-earthquake signals eventually could buy valuable time in which nuclear reactors can be secured or people evacuated, Fortunato said. GEFS platforms in Kodiak picked up an electric current on Jan. 17, but the earthquake didn’t happen for nearly 31 hours – it finally hit near Talkeetna early Monday morning.

For now, researchers – including TSP students and teachers – are trying to figure out what the data actually means.

“What happens is we’re picking up data constantly and looking at it, trying to figure out what’s the baseline, what is zero when nothing’s happening, because there’s a lot of noise,” Fortunato said. “These instruments are so sensitive; they pick up readings all the time. We have to calculate – and it will take a lot of time and data to do it – what does zero mean, what’s the baseline when we erase all the noise coming from the environment, then we only see anomalies. It’s those anomalies, those spikes in the readings, that might tell us something.”

For TSP students and teachers in the next few months, it will mean experiments like starting cars in the parking lot below the platform or turning off electrical systems within the school to see how much “noise” events happening in Ketchikan will produce and affect the data. TSP science teacher Joey Fama said the way that TSP, which is a joint operation between Ketchikan Indian Community and the Ketchikan School District, is organized – with no bell schedules – allows for projects like this.

“Part of the beauty of this program is we can do larger projects, and we have some flexibility with time, so we have a couple of bigger projects for science in this next semester and this will just fit in there,” Fama said.

As far as the “noise” goes, Fama said he doesn’t know what they’ll find.

“I don’t know. That’s the beauty,” Fama said. “It’s very open ended. We don’t know what we’re going to see. We don’t know what relationships we’ll necessarily find. What I would say is, if you notice a spike, we can try to correlate it with other data … and maybe use those to try to find out if there’s a correlation.”

The students will relay the data and their findings to scientists not only at NASA, but all over the world, Fortunato said.

NASA is pushing the students hard to produce those reports, because they’re basically the first live data, pre-earthquake data that’s ever been seen,” Fortunato said. “We’re right on the edge of this incredible program that is real-time, real-world that our kids are responsible for working on.”

The Kayhi platform is the third of its kind to go live – two GEFS platforms in Kodiak have been up and running since October, and Ketchikan School District has plans to put another platform up probably in Craig in the next month.

The project will give students involved a unique opportunity, Fortunato said.

“The types of skills and learning that they’re going to have (to learn) is going to put them in the position for these types of careers,” he said. “I can tell you factually that NASA and these other organizations will track these kids through school, because once (the students) get this kind of skill set, they look for them as future employees.”

The project also allows students to invest themselves in research, too, Fortunato said.

“When you teach these types of subjects, the types of things that they’re studying out of a book, there’s no understanding of when you’re ever going to use it in your life or in your future career, but here, they’re not only seeing why they’re learning the science, the math, the communication skills, the presentation skills, (but) it’s also from something that’s important, so they get a high degree of ownership and responsibility because of it and they work that much harder on it,” Fortunato said.

TSP freshman Cody Fleury said the idea of being on the beta-testing team for a project so unprecedented is exciting. When Fortunato was at Kayhi helping explain and interpret the data presentation this past week, he rattled off a list of questions that TSP was tasked with helping answer.

“Like I said, these are the first platforms going up, so we’re just trying to figure it out, and you’re part of that, too,” Fortunato said.

“So what we’re doing right now could help save lives?” Fleury asked.

“That’s the whole plan,” Fortunato said

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