Fiber optic cables operate as new seismic sensors

Crisscrossing the seafloor is considered to be a huge web of fiber optic cables applied for the internet, television, and telephony. Nevertheless, it is the capability of fiber optic cables for sensing Earth’s tectonic plates is of great interest to researchers.

According to a recent study published in the journal Science, about 20 kilometers of unused fiber cable off the coast of California was converted into the equivalent of 10,000 seismic sensing system stations. Thus, fiber optic technology allows researchers to examine the tectonic plates deep below the Earth’s surface that can be seen at fault lines where rocks are actively folding and shifting. The thing is that these fault lines lead to destructive earthquakes and tsunamis.

It should be noted that the mapping of Earth’s fault zones presents numerous challenges, most of them remain unknown resulting in the fact that nowadays the potential for offshore natural disasters is not fully explored. That is why fiber optic cables offer real help.

To overcome the mentioned challenges, a group of researchers from the U.S. examines the application of sensing based on optical fibers that perform measuring physical parameters such as temperature, pressure, strain, voltages, and acceleration. The fiber optic technology has been tested on distributed acoustic sensing (DAS), a specific type of optical fiber measurement that employs pulses of a laser beam light to continuously register insignificant movements along the seafloor.

The researchers confirm that now there is a huge need for seafloor seismology, and any fiber optic devices you get out into the ocean, even if it is only for the first 50 kilometers from shore, will be highly helpful. For example, the researchers succeeded to detect a 3.5 magnitude quake from underwater fault zones by fiber optic cables during their four-day experiment in Monterey Bay.

Additionally, these fiber optic cables enable the group of researchers to determine “offshore seismic hazards such as fault lines of the San Gregorio Fault system, underwater volcanoes, steady-state ocean waves, and storm waves”. Nonetheless, the ultimate goal, which is the application of the active fiber cable networks around the world, is not yet achieved. 

The thing is that according to estimations, there are more than 10 million kilometers of fiber optic cables, providing earthquake sensing monitoring in regions previously inaccessible. However, it is required to demonstrate how the researchers can collect measurement information without interfering with the data that online fiber optic cables are carrying before the can get the goal. At present, they perform experiments with online optical fibers.

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