Using Data From Fracking Country, Scientists Train a Neural Network to Detect Earthquakes

WIth a 95 percent precision rate, the software is still learning.

Getty Images

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

As earthquakes grow more frequent in the central United States—driven at least in part by the fracking boom—researchers have been working on sophisticated new tools, including satellites, underwater seismic sensors, and software to detect temblors and hopefully even predict them.

The latest unveiling is ConvNetQuake, a so-called convolutional neural network that detects and locates earthquakes using a single waveform. In plain language, it’s software that learns from past seismic data and then applies that knowledge to identify even very small quakes. Unlike traditional methods, ConvNetQuake doesn’t rely on triangulation. “What people used to do is they would use a lot of seismic stations,” says Thibaut Perol, a senior deep learning scientist at Gram Labs, an AI startup. “You don’t need three stations anymore. You can do it with one.”

ConvNetQuake is the subject of a peer-reviewed study published last week in the journal Science Advances. For the study, Perol and his collaborators, Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Michaël Gharbi and Harvard assistant professor Marine Denolle, trained their network with real seismic data from 2014 to 2016.

When tested on a large data set—more than 132,000 earthquakes and “seismic noise” windows catalogued by the Oklahoma Geological Survey—the trained software correctly detected all earthquakes and had an overall precision rate of slightly under 95 percent. 

The distinction between actual earthquakes and seismic noise is an important one, Perol says. Noise can be caused by anything from a tractor rolling by to ocean waves. “If you try to record someone talking inside a car, the noise made by the car is quite constant,” Perol explains. “While someone’s speaking, it’s a bunch of spiking, and you want to distinguish that from the noise. This is what we do naturally with our ears, but this is what we want to do naturally with earthquakes.”

Detecting small earthquakes has also been difficult in the central United States, where hydraulic fracturing—fracking—has exploded in recent years. Perol stops short of saying that fracking directly causes new quakes, but he points to research showing a strong correlation between fracking and quakes. (There are myriad other studies, too.) Unfortunately, ConvNetQuake can’t yet help scientists determine how much seismic activity is due to fracking, Perol says.

The next step is creating a probabilistic location map, a task the neural network is still working on—it has trouble with larger clusters of earthquakes. This is “not surprising,” the researchers say, because the software yet hasn’t been adequately trained. As ConvNetQuake works with larger data sets, its accuracy rate should improve further.

“The reason we’re interested in detecting and locating the small ones is we can get an idea of how seismic activity evolves,” Perol says. “The software will detect tons of earthquakes. Basically, all of this will be done in real time, and all of this information could be given to scientists so they could assess the risk faster.”

The ultimate goal? Long-term earthquake prediction. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get an alert saying, “an earthquake is coming in 10 seconds,” anytime soon. But Perol and his colleagues have made their code open-source in the hope that other researchers will experiment with it. Perol says he’s already had a few people reach out.

The software could also be deployed in other seismically active areas—say, along the San Andreas fault—“maybe predicting the next big one,” Perol says.

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate