Mapping Movement: How Geoscience Australia Keeps the Public Informed About Earthquakes

Earthzine2017 Monthly Focus Topic, Original

Geoscience Australia is using simple maps to help keep the public—and other scientists—informed. In an interview with Earthzine, seismologist Spiro Spiliopoulos explains.

Experts at Geoscience Australia operate the Alert Warning Centre around the clock. Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia (Geoscience Australia) 2017

When the Earth shakes, people notice, and as soon as it stops shaking, people have questions. Down in the Southern Hemisphere, Geoscience Australia is using modern mapping to try to answer some of those questions in near real time.
“When they feel an earthquake, (the public) wants to know what’s happened. It’s very important to do that as soon as possible,” says senior seismologist Spiro Spiliopoulos.
Spiliopoulos is the section leader of the Nuclear Monitoring Section for Geoscience Australia. He has worked for the organization for more than 20 years in numerous roles, ranging from monitoring for underground nuclear testing to working on tsunami warning systems. All of this work relates to seismology, the science of the earthquakes, movement of the ground, and its impacts.
Simple, interactive maps are one of the most important tools that Geoscience Australia uses to communicate their work to the public—an important component of studying earthquakes. One example is the recent earthquakes map. Using a Google map as the base, the webpage provides the location of earthquakes on a time scales of within the last four hours, the last 24 hours, and “less recent.” Clicking on the earthquake location reveals the quake’s strength, time of occurrence, and estimated damage, along with the option for more detailed technical and scientific information. Geoscience Australia also offers Twitter updates and media releases, but this information can take longer to update. The use of the map as a means of communication is about informing the public as soon as possible in an easy-to-navigate way.

A screenshot of the Recent Earthquakes Map. Image Credit: Geoscience Australia

Although seismic movement can occur across the continent of Australia, there are three particular regions especially prone to earthquakes because of their proximity to fault lines: East Australia and South Australia, especially near the Flinders Range.
“(The goal) is just to report as much information about earthquakes as possible to the public as quickly as possible, and as efficiently as possible,” explains Spiliopoulos.
Efficiency is important, because the volume of data that Geoscience Australia works with can be quite large. Geoscience Australia has more than 200 stations sending out data. Each stations consists of a seismometer placed on flat rock or hard ground at the bottom of a 2-meter pit—deep enough in the ground to prevent it from picking up surface activities, like movements of trees in the wind. Near each pit is a small shed containing communications and power equipment that collects data from the seismometer and transmits those data to an internet database using either cellular or satellite signals.
In addition to its own stations, Geoscience Australia also incorporates data from Australian universities and international stations that are part of the tsunami warning system.
Reflecting on the last 10 years of earthquake research, Spiliopoulos says, “One of the big changes (in seismology) from my point of view is that as communications and computing becomes less expensive and more available … we have a lot more availability of data.”
He views this proliferation as a good thing. These data can be turned into tools and information. A large volume of data, if there is computing power to address it, can provide more accurate projections and assessments of earthquake risk. This is critical because in addition to being used for public communication, the data collected by the earthquake sensing systems also are used for preventative safety. For example, tracking earthquakes over time leads to the generation of earthquake hazard maps that project the likelihood of how frequently earthquakes may occur in and area and the size of earthquake most likely in that region. This information, in turn, is used to develop building codes that help ensure the safety of people living in that region.
The immediacy and the relevance of the work are part of what Spiliopoulos appreciates about working as a seismologist.
“One of the things I like about it is that it’s a real-time operational environment,” he says.  
“We have sort of data coming in from many, many stations in real time through our earthquake monitoring center, and we have screens which display the data from all around the world.”
Elise Mulder Osenga is Earthzine’s senior science writer. Follow her on Twitter @mountainlark.