Aerospace engineer Tom Bleier climbed a hill in the Bay Area on a recent week day to inspect a sensor designed to detect if the nearby San Andreas fault was about to shake the earth.
It was part of a network of 115 sensors deployed along the coast of California to act as ears capable of capturing these tips, called electromagnetic precursors. If they exist, they could serve as an early warning system for earthquakes.
They could also provide a clue to understand the creepy electric shocks known as “earthquake lights,” which some seismologists say can explode before and during certain seismic events.
Bleier had reason to appear sad. After spending 20 years and $ 30 million, he and other engineers at the Stellar Solution Inc. QuakeFinder.com project never found a clear indicator of a deadly seismic risk. But that didn’t stop them from trying.
A budget cut did it.
In December, Stellar Solutions drastically reduced the project’s operating funds, a victim of the company’s decision to focus on its most productive defense and satellite work. His data analysis team was dismantled, perhaps indefinitely.
Bleier, 74, who recently retired, is a volunteer in a two-man crew that keeps the sensors running until 2020.
“If our funding is completely depleted,” said Bleier, “we will remove the soil sensors, finishing the only project of this kind in the United States.”
Bleier’s research is independent of the early warning system of the US Geological Survey. UU. It feeds applications like MyShake and ShakeAlertLA, designed to warn people about expected tremors from distant earthquakes. But his disappearance closes a project that was originally very promising.
Like the search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, scientists have been unsuccessfully searching for decades to establish the existence of precursors. Similarly, some researchers have faced mockery for clinging to phenomena that precede earthquakes: strange behavior of animals, changes in groundwater pressure, electromagnetic emissions, strange lights.
The USGS recognizes that tectonic stress can, under certain conditions, generate electromagnetic pulses that, upon reaching the surface, could create luminosities ranging from incandescent orbs to blue and white light curtains similar to auroras.
But a study to confirm its existence is out of the question.
“It would be a fatal blow to the race because earthquake prediction is not believed to be a promising road in general,” said Susan Hough, a USGS seismologist in Pasadena.
His book, “Predicting the unpredictable: the tumultuous science of earthquake prediction” points out that no one sounded the alarm before the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed about 100,000 people; the 2010 earthquake in Chile that killed 525 people, or the earthquake that shook Japan in 2011 that killed 15,000 people and caused a tsunami that severely damaged a nuclear power plant.
“Who means:” Am I going to be the best world expert in earthquake lights? “”, I ask.
The answer to that question is Bleier, for example. “I will never abandon the search,” said the self-styled “geek in a positive sense” that persuaded Celeste Ford, executive director and founder of Stellar Solutions, to take on the project as a humanitarian R&D initiative.
“We have given our hearts and souls to QuakeFinder,” Ford said in an interview. “But specifying precursors is not a single-company job.”
The end result: it takes about $ 4 million a year to operate its sensors in earthquake-prone regions, including California, Peru, Taiwan, Greece, Chile and Indonesia, and pay employees to process the data they collect.
“That is a lot of money for a company to load forever,” Ford said. “Then, we are pressing the pause button.”
A month ago, QuakeFinder search results for earthquake pulses between 2005 and 2018 were published in the scientific journal Computers and Geosciences.
To hear QuakeFinder say it, they suggest that there are small precursor signals, but they are masked by natural and artificial background electromagnetic noise. “We need to find a way to extract that signal from all that noise,” Bleier said. “That would require more funds.”
Loyal supporters of the project include John Derr, a former USGS geophysicist whose report on earthquake lights in the 1973 edition of the Earthquake Information Bulletin of the Geological Service drew attention, including from the New York Times.
“The precursors could be used to develop an earthquake warning system,” said Derr, 78. “If that is not important, I will eat my hat!”
“Unfortunately,” he added, “this issue is on the dark side of seismology and could destroy your career if you study it.”
Another advocate is Friedemann Freund, a retired NASA scientist and associate professor at San Jose State University who has researched dozens of earthquake light stories.
Stellar Solutions provided most of QuakeFinder’s funds since its launch in 1994, but other donors, including NASA and billionaire Elon Musk, took out their checkbooks.
Its sensors and a one foot long satellite launched into orbit on a Russian rocket in 2003 were destined to be the first step towards the development of accurate earthquake forecasts.
But the satellite stopped working after 18 months, and the sensors are so sensitive that engineers have not been able to separate potential whispers of earthquake pulses from natural and artificial background noise.
The magnitude 6 earthquake in southern Napa 2014 near San Francisco did not detect enough signs to indicate an impending earthquake. “It was a big disappointment,” Bleier said.
Bleier is struggling to keep the project alive. The proposals under consideration include a “contest” that would invite participants to examine 70 terabytes of data collected over the past two decades. He remains convinced that there is a breakthrough that could save lives and property.