A research team led by Kurt Nihei, a staff scientist in the Energy Geosciences Division of Berkeley Lab, has received a funding award through the lab’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program. Over the next two years, the researchers will collaborate with Pacific Gas & Electric to evaluate the ability of next-generation electric meters to assess regional seismic risk.

PG&E will replace more than 300,000 electric SmartMeterunits across the Bay Area with Next Generation Meters equipped with accelerometers that can detect subtle motions of the ground. Making up the world’s largest ultra-dense seismic array, the NGMs offer Berkeley Lab scientists an unprecedented opportunity to capture high-resolution images of geological properties over large regions and as a function of time.  

While seismic experts on earthquake hazard have traditionally relied upon measurements of ground acceleration taken from historical earthquakes at a sparse number of locations, recent Berkeley Lab research has focused on developing a modern computational framework for quantifying ground motion based on full physics simulations on a regional scale. Nihei says that having access to the level of detail the information captured by NGMs provides could essentially transform the degree to which scientists can quantify the effects of earthquakes on critical infrastructure.

“In areas where the risk of an earthquake is high, it’s imperative that we quantify seismic hazard at locations with critical infrastructure and in especially populated areas like the Bay Area,” Nihei says. “NGMs provide the rare chance to leverage big data to help us do so. Through this project, we will build the algorithms, tools, and workflows needed to fully realize the value of such high-resolution, regionally specific data.”

For example, the team believes it can utilize NGM’s ultra-dense seismic array to obtain images ofshear-wave velocities in the shallow subsurface at resolutions approaching 25 meters. The researchers will leverage the results of this high-resolution imaging in a related DOE-funded study that will incorporate this fine scale geological information in   exascale seismic simulations to quantify regional-scale earthquake hazard and risk for critical infrastructure in the Bay Area.

It may also be possible to use time-lapse images from the ultra-dense seismic array as a tool for characterizing transient hydrogeological and geomechanical processes taking place in the Bay Area’s geologically complex, highly stressed subsurface.

“In areas where the risk of an earthquake is high, it’s imperative that we quantify seismic hazard at locations with critical infrastructure and in especially populated areas like the Bay Area,” Nihei says. “NGMs provide the rare chance to leverage big data to help us do so. Through this project, we will build the algorithms, tools, and workflows needed to fully realize the value of such high-resolution, regionally specific data.”

The team will benefit from EESA’s ongoing LDRD study exploring the use of dark fiber, a vast network of unused fiber-optic cables present underground throughout the world since their installment in the 1990s, as a dense sensor network for detecting earthquakes and monitoring changes in groundwater, permafrost conditions, and a variety of other subsurface processes that are important for energy production and environmental monitoring.