Research Software Blog: WARN geohazard detection Research Software Platform keeps Canada’s west coast safe

Posted by Scott Henwood, Director, Research Software Program

Although many Canadians may not know this, there are sensors located along the BC coast, as well as off the coast, in the Pacific Ocean. Underwater-cabled observatories collect data on ocean and Earth processes through sensors that measure a variety of physical and chemical properties, including pressure, movement and temperature. Land-based sensors, including radar sensors, collect similar data along the coastline.

Collating Sensor Info to Detect Natural Disasters

With funding support from CANARIE, Ocean Networks Canada (an initiative of the University of Victoria) is developing a software system to co-ordinate readings from these sensors in order to detect and report natural hazards, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. This system, called the Web-enabled Awareness Research Network (WARN), has the potential to help save lives and limit the impacts of natural disasters.

Even though the WARN software platform is still in development, on November 15, 2014, it detected a magnitude 7.3 earthquake that was centred near Indonesia, approximately 11,000 km away.

How does this work? One type of sensor – an accelerometer – measures movements of the earth, including those generated by earthquakes. Similarly, underwater pressure sensors can detect waves by measuring the weight of the water above the sensor. Using data from a number of sensors in different locations, WARN does not merely detect events; it also makes important measurements, such as the severity and epicentre of an earthquake or the speed and direction of travel of a tsunami.

Getting Disaster Info into the Right Hands

Once an event has been detected, WARN can provide notifications to emergency personnel in real time. Imagine a first responder getting a message on their phone notifying them that a tsunami had been detected, how long it will be before the water reaches the location of the phone, and where to find safe ground.

As extremely powerful as these capabilities are on their own, WARN also interfaces to research systems maintained by other Canadian researchers to help determine the potential impact of a disaster. Earthquake location and magnitude estimates could be provided by WARN to a civil engineering research platform that then calculates the expected impact on buildings and infrastructure, ultimately directing disaster response and utility operators to be in position where they will be needed most.

Even better, Ocean Networks Canada has made their notification system available to other researchers through CANARIE’s Software Services Registry so that it can be used in future Research Platforms that require notification of sensor events.

Supporting Disaster Preparedness

Although important in managing an actual emergency, WARN is also valuable in disaster response research. Through the WARN platform, Ocean Networks Canada can replay sensor readings captured in the past during actual natural hazard events, effectively providing a simulation of an emergency for research purposes. The Ocean Networks Canada infrastructure is used during the Great British Columbia StakeOut, a disaster preparedness drill held annually as part of the worldwide Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills initiative.

It’s world-class science, done right here in Canada!

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