Do you live in the Pacific Northwest? Are you perpetually anxious about the earthquake that’s going to eventually cause your piece of the continent to fall six feet into the ocean and move as much as 100 feet westward while everything built on it falls down?
Here’s some (arguably) good news: You can now track seismic activity on the bottom of the ocean in real time, thanks to a network of sensors connected to the internet by a fiber optic cable. This may be peak internet-of-things, but it’s also an incredibly valuable tool for science. Researchers, students, and members of the public can access data transmitted in real time from one of the harshest environments on Earth. As a bonus, the data portal looks awesome and is fun to explore.
Unfortunately, access to this data isn’t necessarily going to make you better prepared for an earthquake. Even scientists haven’t yet come up with a good way to predict when an earthquake will strike. The best we can do today is measure the probability of a particular fault giving way, and the potential energy stored in that fault that could be released. Or, if you’re far enough from the epicenter, you might get a few minutes of warning between when the earthquake’s first vibrations are recorded and when the shaking knocks down Pike Place Market.
Still, time and emotional energy might be better spent monitoring the Axial Seamount, an underwater volcano 300 miles west of Portland that is equally fascinating and much less potentially deadly than the promised Cascadia quake.
The Axial volcano is the most active in the northern Pacific. It sits on a fault where two tectonic plates are pulling away from each other, unlike Cascadia, where the tectonic plates are crushing up against each other. At the Axial volcano, the belly of the earth rises up from within, causing lava flows and hydrothermal vents that make up surprising ecosystems for creatures of the deep. During a period of volcanic activity, the area can see thousands of small earthquakes in a day, although very few are strong enough to be registered on land-based seismometers. A high definition camera live-streams from the volcano for 14 minutes every three hours throughout the day.
It’s the safe, low-risk, way to get excited about deep-ocean science — just what the doctor ordered for your dangerously frayed nervous system.