Czech-Mexican sensors could help developing countries minimise earthquake casualties

The tragic earthquake that recently hit Turkey and Syria served as another reminder of the catastrophic damage earthquakes can cause, especially in countries that can’t afford expensive early warning systems. But a new cheap sensor that is being tested by Czech scientists in Nepal could be the solution and provide the valuable seconds needed to save lives.

The Himalayas | Photo: abhishek91yo,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

The Himalayas are the largest mountain formation in the world. They were created by the gradual sliding of the Indian plate into Eurasia. This process is still ongoing, resulting not only in the average rise of the mountain range by 1cm every year, but also in earthquakes that can cause huge damage such as in Nepal in 2015 when one such event resulted in the deaths of nearly 9,000 people.

It is precisely in Nepal where geophysicist Václav Kuna from the Institute of Geophysics at the Czech Academy of Sciences is now testing an early warning system that has the potential to save lives when the next major earthquake hits.

“It enables us to cut ahead of the seismic wave which travels at a speed of around 3-4km per second. This extra time can be used by people to get out of immediate danger. For example by running out of their house or hiding under the table.”

Václav Kuna | Photo: Institute of Geophysics at the Czech Academy of Sciences

The sensors, developed through a collaboration of Czech and Mexican scientists, are no bigger than a soap box and less precise than many other detection systems used around the world. But in Nepal this can actually be viewed as an advantage, he says.

“There already are earthquake warning systems in several parts of the world. For example, in Japan or in California. Usually they make use of high quality sensors, which are often bigger than ours.

“They are great for detecting earthquakes, but their cost is high, up to a million crowns for setting up just one station. That’s a problem because poorer countries such as Nepal often can’t afford to pay so much for setting up a network of dozens or hundreds of such stations.”

Photo: ČT24

When grouped together into networks, sensors are able to provide far more precise information about the vibrations they detect and allow geophysicists to identify whether they are being caused by an earthquake or not.

What makes the sensors so cheap is that they are assembled out of easy to get, common electronics. They are less sensitive than their more expensive counterparts, but effective at identifying vibrations above 3.5 on the Richter scale. This is more than sufficient to detect major earthquakes, Václav Kuna says, as his hands tinker with several sensors placed around what looks like a plaster brick.

“Basically I have a high quality sensor that I can trust and next to it I have the cheaper ones that I am testing. I have a device that hits into the brick and then check whether the detected vibrations on the sensors that I am testing are the same as those being shown on the high quality sensor.”

The cheap sensors have been in development since 2020 and, according to news site Seznam Zprávy, tens of them have also been delivered to Portico and Chile. Their current version is designed to be placed inside houses, but work is already done to design sensors which could be placed in the open countryside and draw energy from solar panels.