STEM Project Detects Earthquake Activity

Seismic activity is recorded every day in the Bay Area. In early January, a 4.4 magnitude earthquake centered along the Hayward fault jolted many East Bay residents out of bed in the early morning hours.

An extensive network of instruments monitors seismic activity, and Moreau Catholic students are part of a STEM project from QuakeFinder ( to help record electromagnetic signals when nearby earthquakes occur.

“QuakeFinder is trying to develop a transformative technology using electromagnetic monitoring to detect pre-earthquake signals,” said founder Tom Bleier who met with students in January to outline the STEM project. “Our ultimate goal is to save lives by forecasting large earthquakes two weeks to two days prior to the earthquake occurring.

QuakeFinder has 172 of its instruments located throughout earthquake-prone regions such as California, Peru, Chile, Sumatra, Taiwan, and Greece, for monitoring ultra-low frequency magnetic signals, as well as simplified instruments for monitoring air ionization. With close proximity to the Hayward fault, Moreau Catholic High School was a perfect location for one of their simplified instruments.

Students have assembled a “Mini Station” kit and found a convenient location on campus to install the air ionization sensors. The task of putting together the kit was completed by students Sravya Balasa, Gurleen Kaur, Sam Zhang and Kainoa Lee. Once installed these students can monitor the data collected on the Amazon cloud.

“This project not only allows our students to build something by applying various interdisciplinary skills, but they also will be personally involved in something that has the potential to impact the lives of millions of people,” said Moreau science teacher Mike Tobler, who worked with the students on the project.

“Science and engineering are all about answering questions and solving problems. There are few problems in the Bay Area that are as devastating as an earthquake. Being a part of something as impactful as predicting earthquakes is a rare opportunity at the high school level, and our students are ready to seize that opportunity,” Tobler said.

“Additionally, our students will be contributing valuable data for earthquake prediction research, have access to their own data as well as the data collected from other schools – and are encouraged to use that data for offshoot projects,” Tobler added.

The students see this project as an extension of their classroom studies as well as a unique opportunity for them.

“In my physics class, we learn theories but don’t have the chance to apply those theories to the real world,” senior Sam Zhang said. “Working on this project is a great opportunity to combine theory with practice.”

“This project helps provide a reliable method through technology and science to predict earthquakes, which is a great possibility,” senior Sravya Balasa added.

“Earthquakes are still a natural disaster that we can’t prepare for,” senior Gurleen Kaur said, “and this project makes predicting earthquakes a possibility.”

Research studies have found that earthquakes produce electromagnetic activities prior to an earthquake, including large electrical currents below ground (an increase in magnetic pulsations as the rock stress changes), air ionization, and infrared energy as observed by infrared cameras on weather satellites, Bleier explained.

“The magnetic field signals are very small and localized, and they are contaminated by magnetic noise from BART electric trains. However, air ionization is not affected by the BART noise, thus a prime location for installing the Mini Stations with air ionization sensors was the Moreau Catholic school location,” Bleier said.

These ion sensors are basically ‘sniffing the air.’ The electronics collect the sensor data and send it through wi-fi to the Internet where it is stored on the Amazon cloud. Moreau students will be able to share their data with other high school students and be part of an active research project that is statewide.

Other schools on the East Bay participating in the QuakeFinder outreach project include: St. Mary’s College High School (Albany), Vista High School (Richmond), Bishop O’Dowd High School (Oakland), Milpitas High School (Milpitas), and Irvington High School (Fremont). QuakeFinder is funded as part of a humanitarian research project of aerospace engineering firm Stellar Solutions located in Palo Alto.