Monday, January 7th 2013, 9:25 AM EST
Scientists are to launch an experiment which could allow them to predict earthquakes before they happen and potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives.
They believe a rise in static electricity below the ground could be a reliable indicator that a quake is imminent.
Tom Bleier, a satellite engineer with QuakeFinder, has spent millions of dollars putting specialist measuring equipment- magnetometers - along fault lines in California, Peru, Taiwan, and Greece
The instruments are sensitive enough to detect magnetic pulses from electrical discharges up to 10 miles (16 kilometers) away, which could give people enough time to get to safety before a quake strikes.
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Scientists' theory is that, when an earthquake looms, activity below ground goes through a 'strange change', producing intense electrical currents
'These currents are huge,' Bleier said at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.
'They're on the order of 100,000 amperes for a magnitude 6 earthquake and a million amperes for a magnitude 7. It's almost like lightning, underground.'
He added in National Geographic News: 'In a typical day along the San Andreas fault, you might see ten pulses per day.
'The fault is always moving, grinding, snapping, and crackling.'
Before a large earthquake, that background level of static-electricity discharges should rise sharply, Bleier said.
And that is what he claims he's seen prior to the half dozen magnitude 5 and 6 earthquakes whose precursors he's been able to monitor.
'It goes up to maybe 150 or 200 pulses a day,' he said.
The number of pulses, he added, seems to surge about two weeks before the earthquake then drop back to background level until shortly before the fault slips.
There are hitches to the project, though - magnetic pulses could be caused by a lot of other things, ranging from random events within the Earth to lightning, solar flares, and electrical interference from highway equipment.
Charged particles - or ions - from deep below the earth migrate to the surface and impair the accuracy of the equipment, so special ion sensors have been added to the equipment.
The ion count can also be magnified by wet weather, so humidity sensors have also been added to rule out the possibility of false alarms.
His team hasn't yet monitored enough large earthquakes for him to be sure that what he's found is valid for all quakes.
But he does feel they have enough good clues to move ahead. Starting in January, Mr Bleier's team will try to start making forecasts.
'Instead of looking backwards in time, we're going to start looking forwards,' he said.
Other scientists are contributing laboratory analysis to support the magnetic field theory.
Robert Dahlgren, an electrical engineer at the SETI Institute, has spent 16 months working with other scientists to squeeze rocks under high pressures to see if they produce electrical currents.
He confirmed they indeed produce pressure-dependent current and voltage signals.
But he found no discharges from rocks soaked in the type of brine found at earthquake epicenter depths, presumably because the salty brine short circuits the current.
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