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Using Fiber Optic Cables to Predict Earthquakes

FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the internet.

Earthquakes can be devastating in terms of their destructive impacts. For decades, there have been scientific efforts seeking to predict earthquakes. If an earthquake could be predicted reliably in advance, people could be warned and they potentially could move toward safety before the earthquake strikes.

Unfortunately, earthquake prediction efforts generally have not met with success. But what about fiber optic cables -- the very cables that deliver internet connectivity -- can they help when it comes to earthquake detection?

As we know, and as explained in a recent article in PopularMechanics.com, fiber optic cables carry information almost at the speed of light. These cables are used by telecommunications companies all across the globe. And they also are implemented by oil and gas companies detect to tiny quakes that result from drilling equipment. These companies use the "backscatter property" of the cables to monitor the actual movement of cables and to detect seismic events.

Following on, researchers at Stanford University have put in place a three-mile optical fiber loop around the Stanford campus. And by employing this fiber network they have been able to detect 800 seismic events, including 1.6 and 1.8 Richter scale local earthquakes as well as a recent earthquake as far away as Mexico, according to PopularMechanics.com.

This could translate to mean that scientists potentially could piggyback on existing fiber optic cables that telecommunications companies already have put in place around the U.S. to detect earthquakes.

It is important to note that these cables would not be as sensitive as traditional seismometers, but but they are less expensive and provide a broader detection network, as pointed out by PopularMechanics.com.

It remains to be seen how much advance warning of earthquakes fiber optic cables would provide if they are employed to detect earthquakes. Yet, even a warning of a matter of minutes could save many lives in an urban area.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please email him at ejsinrod@duanemorris.com with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.

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