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SCEC gets $10 million to create online earthquake lab

Researchers will create technology giving scientists and engineers the tools to do complex calculations faster than ever before

The National Science Foundation has awarded the Southern California Earthquake Center at USC $10 million to develop an innovative online laboratory to do earthquake science in Southern California.

The money, which will be distributed over five years, will go toward creating computer technologies that will give scientists and engineers the tools to do complex calculations more quickly and accurately than ever before.

That will lead to a more detailed understanding of how geologically active faults in the region behave and how the ground around those areas would shake in an earthquake, said Tom Jordan, director of SCEC and the W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of Earth Sciences at USC.

“What we are trying to do is come up with an information architecture to make earthquake science a more predictive science,” Jordan said. “In particular, we’d like to be able to predict the types of strong ground motions that might occur in and around the Los Angeles region and in Southern California.”

SCEC, headquartered at USC, is a consortium of 40 universities and research organizations funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey and other government agencies.

Along with SCEC members, the project will involve researchers from USC’s Information Sciences Institute, the San Diego Supercomputing Center, the USGS and Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology – a consortium of nearly 100 institutions.

This spirit of collaboration is at the heart of the project, which aims to develop technologies that will link various networks online and enable scientists to do earthquake science online, together, for the first time.

“Each of us, as scientists, typically works on one small aspect of the problem. In order to really come up with a comprehensive and integrated understanding of earthquakes, we have to be able to put all of this together,” Jordan said.

To understand how earthquakes work, scientists create complex computer models that must be faithful not only to the physics of earthquakes, but also to the data collected, he added.

“Trying to boot-strap our way into better and better models is something that requires integration of a lot of information, and it’s beyond the capability of any one individual. It’s beyond the capability of any one academic institution,” Jordan said.

“These problems typically are worked together by dozens, or maybe even hundreds, of scientists. … We have to begin to use computational technologies, information technologies, to help us organize that whole process of doing the science.”

The project will incorporate three primary types of network-based information technology:

• A digital library that will allow scientists to organize, classify and retrieve information.

• Grid technology, or computational grids, that will route data to be processed faster and more efficiently than before.

• Knowledge representation that will create a standardized language, allowing computers from various institutions to communicate information about earthquakes.

“These are, in many cases, highly developed technologies, but we will push them to new levels,” Jordan said.

Information technology has already transformed our daily lives, but its most significant impact to date may be in science and engineering, said Gary Strong of the National Science Foundation’s Information Technology Research Program that awarded SCEC the funds.

“These new NSF projects show that information technology is enabling new types of fundamental research not previously feasible by helping to gather and make sense of a data avalanche that will solve countless mysteries about the world around us,” Strong said.

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SCEC gets $10 million to create online earthquake lab

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