Researcher receives $1.2 million to create real-time seismic imaging system

This is Dr. WenZhan Song. -  Georgia State University
This is Dr. WenZhan Song. – Georgia State University

Dr. WenZhan Song, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Georgia State University, has received a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a real-time seismic imaging system using ambient noise.

This imaging system for shallow earth structures could be used to study and monitor the sustainability of the subsurface, or area below the surface, and potential hazards of geological structures. Song and his collaborators, Yao Xie of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Fan-Chi Lin of the University of Utah, will use ambient noise to image the subsurface of geysers in Yellowstone National Park.

“This project is basically imaging what’s underground in a situation where there’s no active source, like an earthquake. We’re using background noise,” Song said. “At Yellowstone, for instance, people visit there and cars drive by. All that could generate signals that are penetrating through the ground. We essentially use that type of information to tap into a very weak signal to infer the image of underground. This is very frontier technology today.”

The system will be made up of a large network of wireless sensors that can perform in-network computing of 3-D images of the shallow earth structure that are based solely on ambient noise.

Real-time ambient noise seismic imaging technology could also inform homeowners if the subsurface below their home, which can change over time, is stable or will sink beneath them.

This technology can also be used in circumstances that don’t need to rely on ambient noise but have an active source that produces signals that can be detected by wireless sensors. It could be used for real-time monitoring and developing early warning systems for natural hazards, such as volcanoes, by determining how close magma is to the surface. It could also benefit oil exploration, which uses methods such as hydrofracturing, in which high-pressure water breaks rocks and allows natural gas to flow more freely from underground.

“As they do that, it’s critical to monitor that in real time so you can know what’s going on under the ground and not cause damage,” Song said. “It’s a very promising technology, and we’re helping this industry reduce costs significantly because previously they only knew what was going on under the subsurface many days and even months later. We could reduce this to seconds.”

Until now, data from oil exploration instruments had to be manually retrieved and uploaded into a centralized database, and it could take days or months to process and analyze the data.

The research team plans to have a field demonstration of the system in Yellowstone and image the subsurface of some of the park’s geysers. The results will be shared with Yellowstone management, rangers and staff. Yellowstone, a popular tourist attraction, is a big volcano that has been dormant for a long time, but scientists are concerned it could one day pose potential hazards.

In the past several years, Song has been developing a Real-time In-situ Seismic Imaging (RISI) system using active sources, under the support of another $1.8 million NSF grant. His lab has built a RISI system prototype that is ready for deployment. The RISI system can be implemented as a general field instrumentation platform for various geophysical imaging applications and incorporate new geophysical data processing and imaging algorithms.

The RISI system can be applied to a wide range of geophysical exploration topics, such as hydrothermal circulation, oil exploration, mining safety and mining resource monitoring, to monitor the uncertainty inherent to the exploration and production process, reduce operation costs and mitigate the environmental risks. The business and social impact is broad and significant. Song is seeking business investors and partners to commercialize this technology.


For more information about the project, visit

Yellowstone geyser eruptions influenced more by internal processes

<IMG SRC="/Images/994664490.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="396" BORDER="0" ALT="This is a map showing the location of Daisy and Old Faithful geysers in Yellowstone's Upper Geyser Basin. Inset map of Yellowstone National Park shows the weather station at Yellowstone Lake, seismic stations LKWY and H17A, and strainmeter B944. – Images taken from: Shaul Hurwitz, Robert A. Sohn, Karen Luttrell, Michael Manga, "Triggering and modulation of geyser eruptions in Yellowstone National Park by earthquakes, earth tides, and weather", Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, DOI:10.1002/2013JB010803″>
This is a map showing the location of Daisy and Old Faithful geysers in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin. Inset map of Yellowstone National Park shows the weather station at Yellowstone Lake, seismic stations LKWY and H17A, and strainmeter B944. – Images taken from: Shaul Hurwitz, Robert A. Sohn, Karen Luttrell, Michael Manga, “Triggering and modulation of geyser eruptions in Yellowstone National Park by earthquakes, earth tides, and weather”, Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, DOI:10.1002/2013JB010803

The intervals between geyser eruptions depend on a delicate balance of underground factors, such as heat and water supply, and interactions with surrounding geysers. Some geysers are highly predictable, with intervals between eruptions (IBEs) varying only slightly. The predictability of these geysers offer earth scientists a unique opportunity to investigate what may influence their eruptive activity, and to apply that information to rare and unpredictable types of eruptions, such as those from volcanoes.

Dr. Shaul Hurwitz took advantage of a decade of eruption data-spanning from 2001 to 2011-for two of Yellowstone’s most predictable geysers, the cone geyser Old Faithful and the pool geyser, Daisy.

Dr. Hurwitz’s team focused their statistical analysis on possible correlations between the geysers’ IBEs and external forces such as weather, earth tides and earthquakes. The authors found no link between weather and Old Faithful’s IBEs, but they did find that Daisy’s IBEs correlated with cold temperatures and high winds. In addition, Daisy’s IBEs were significantly shortened following the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Alaska in 2002.

The authors note that atmospheric processes exert a relatively small but statistically significant influence on pool geysers’ IBEs by modulating heat transfer rates from the pool to the atmosphere. Overall, internal processes and interactions with surrounding geysers dominate IBEs’ variability, especially in cone geysers.

Distant quakes trigger tremors at US waste-injection sites, says study

Large earthquakes from distant parts of the globe are setting off tremors around waste-fluid injection wells in the central United States, says a new study. Furthermore, such triggering of minor quakes by distant events could be precursors to larger events at sites where pressure from waste injection has pushed faults close to failure, say researchers.

Among the sites covered: a set of injection wells near Prague, Okla., where the study says a huge earthquake in Chile on Feb. 27, 2010 triggered a mid-size quake less than a day later, followed by months of smaller tremors. This culminated in probably the largest quake yet associated with waste injection, a magnitude 5.7 event which shook Prague on Nov. 6, 2011. Earthquakes off Japan in 2011, and Sumatra in 2012, similarly set off mid-size tremors around injection wells in western Texas and southern Colorado, says the study. The paper appears this week in the leading journal Science, along with a series of other articles on how humans may be influencing earthquakes.

“The fluids are driving the faults to their tipping point,” said lead author Nicholas van der Elst, a postdoctoral researcher at Columba University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “The remote triggering by big earthquakes is an indication the area is critically stressed.”

Tremors triggered by distant large earthquakes have been identified before, especially in places like Yellowstone National Park and some volcanically active subduction zones offshore, where subsurface water superheated by magma can weaken faults, making them highly vulnerable to seismic waves passing by from somewhere else. The study in Science adds a new twist by linking this natural phenomenon to faults that have been weakened by human activity.

A surge in U.S. energy production in the last decade or so has sparked what appears to be a rise in small to mid-sized earthquakes in the United States. Large amounts of water are used both to crack open rocks to release natural gas through hydrofracking, and to coax oil and gas from underground wells using conventional techniques. After the gas and oil have been extracted, the brine and chemical-laced water must be disposed of, and is often pumped back underground elsewhere, sometimes causing earthquakes.

From a catalog of past earthquake recordings, van der Elst and his colleagues found that faults near wastewater-injection sites in and around Prague, Snyder, Tex., and Trinidad, Colo., were approaching a critical state when big earthquakes far away triggered a rise in local earthquakes. Injection at the three sites had been ongoing for years, and the researchers hypothesize that passing surface waves from the big events caused small pressure changes on faults, triggering smaller earthquakes.

“These passing seismic waves are like a stress test,” said study coauthor Heather Savage, a geophysicist at Lamont-Doherty. “If the number of small earthquakes increases, it could indicate that faults are becoming critically stressed and might soon host a larger earthquake.”

The 2010 magnitude 8.8 Chile quake, which killed more than 500 people, sent surface waves rippling across the planet, triggering a magnitude 4.1 quake near Prague 16 hours later, the study says. The activity near Prague continued until the magnitude 5.7 quake on Nov. 6, 2011 that destroyed 14 homes and injured two people. A study earlier this year led by seismologist Katie Keranen, also a coauthor of the new study, now at Cornell University, found that the first rupture occurred less than 650 feet away from active injection wells. In April 2012, a magnitude 8.6 earthquake off Sumatra triggered another swarm of earthquakes in the same place. The pumping of fluid into the field continues to this day, along with a pattern of small quakes.

The 2010 Chile quake also set off a swarm of earthquakes on the Colorado-New Mexico border, in Trinidad, near wells where wastewater used to extract methane from coal beds had been injected, the study says. The swarm was followed more than a year later, on Aug. 22 2011, by a magnitude 5.3 quake that damaged dozens of buildings. A steady series of earthquakes had already struck Trinidad in the past, including a magnitude 4.6 quake in 2001 that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has investigated for links to wastewater injection.

The new study found also that Japan’s devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011 triggered a swarm of earthquakes in the west Texas town of Snyder, where injection of fluid to extract oil from the nearby Cogdell fields has been setting off earthquakes for years, according to a 1989 study in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. About six months after the Japan quake, a magnitude 4.5 quake struck Snyder.

The idea that seismic activity can be triggered by separate earthquakes taking place faraway was once controversial. One of the first cases to be documented was the magnitude 7.3 earthquake that shook California’s Mojave Desert in 1992, near the town of Landers, setting off a series of distant events in regions with active hot springs, geysers and volcanic vents. The largest was a magnitude 5.6 quake beneath Little Skull Mountain in southern Nevada, 150 miles away; the farthest, a series of tiny earthquakes north of Yellowstone caldera, according to a 1993 study in Science led by USGS geophysicist David Hill.

In 2002, the magnitude 7.9 Denali earthquake in Alaska triggered a series of earthquakes at Yellowstone, nearly 2,000 miles away, throwing off the schedules of some of its most predictable geysers, according to a 2004 study in Geology led by Stephan Husen, a seismologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Z├╝rich. The Denali quake also triggered bursts of slow tremors in and around California’s San Andreas, San Jacinto and Calaveras faults, according to a 2008 study in Science led by USGS geophysicist Joan Gomberg.

“We’ve known for at least 20 years that shaking from large, distant earthquakes can trigger seismicity in places with naturally high fluid pressure, like hydrothermal fields,” said study coauthor Geoffrey Abers, a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty. “We’re now seeing earthquakes in places where humans are raising pore pressure.”

The new study may be the first to find evidence of triggered earthquakes on faults critically stressed by waste injection. If it can be replicated and extended to other sites at risk of manmade earthquakes it could “help us understand where the stresses are,” said William Ellsworth, an expert on human-induced earthquakes with the USGS who was not involved in the study.

In the same issue of Science, Ellsworth reviews the recent upswing in earthquakes in the central United States. The region averaged 21 small to mid-sized earthquakes each year from the late 1960s through 2000. But in 2001, that number began to climb, reaching a high of 188 earthquakes in 2011, he writes. The risk of setting off earthquakes by injecting fluid underground has been known since at least the 1960s, when injection at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver was suspended after a magnitude 4.8 quake or greater struck nearby-the largest tied to wastewater disposal until the one near Prague, Okla. In a report last year, the National Academy of Sciences called for further research to “understand, limit and respond [to]” seismic events induced by human activity.

Ocean floor geysers warm flowing sea water

An international team of earth scientists report movement of warmed sea water through the flat, Pacific Ocean floor off Costa Rica. The movement is greater than that off midocean volcanic ridges. The finding suggests possible marine life in a part of the ocean once considered barren.

With about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface being ocean, much remains unknown about what is under the sea, its geology, and the life it supports. A new finding reported by American, Canadian and German earth scientists suggests a rather unremarkable area off the Costa Rican Pacific coast holds clues to better understand sea floor ecosystems.

Carol Stein, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a member of the research team that has studied the region, located between 50 and 150 miles offshore and covering an area the size of Connecticut. The sea floor, some two miles below, is marked by a collection of about 10 widely separated outcrops or mounts, rising from sediment covering crust made of extinct volcanic rock some 20-25 million years old.

Stein and her colleagues found that seawater on this cold ocean floor is flowing through cracks and crevices faster and in greater quantity than what is typically found at mid-ocean ridges formed by rising lava. Water temperatures, while not as hot as by the ridge lava outcrops, are surprisingly warm as well.

Finding so much movement in a bland area of the ocean was surprising.

“It’s like finding Old Faithful in Illinois,” said Stein. “When we went out to try to get a feel for how much heat was coming from the ocean floor and how much sea water might be moving through it, we found that there was much more heat than we expected at the outcrops.”

The water gushing from sea floor protrusions warms as it moves through the insulated volcanic rock and picks up heat.

“It’s relatively warm and may have some of the nutrients needed to support some of the life forms we see on the sea floor,” said Stein. Her best guess as to why the water flows so rapidly is that it accelerates off nearby sea mounts and follows a well-connected network of cracks beneath the sea floor.

The earth scientists dropped probes from ships down to the pitch-dark ocean floor to collect temperature and heat-flow data to form images of what is happening in this area of the ocean, with water flowing down into rock, heating up and remixing below the floor sediment, and then escaping above the sea floor.

Only in recent decades have earth scientists discovered such life forms as bacteria, clams and tubeworm species living near the hot water discharges along the mid-ocean volcanic ridges. The rather flat undersea areas which Stein and her colleagues studied were thought to be lifeless, but the nutrient-enhanced warm water flows they discovered suggests this area too may be capable of supporting life.

“The sea floor may not be quite as much of a desert even as we thought maybe 20 or 10 years ago, but rather there may be a lot of locations similar to this well-studied area in terms of the water flow where there’s a lot more biological activity,” she said.

The earth scientists hope to do follow-up studies to add details to their findings, and see if they can find other regions comparable to the one off Costa Rica.

“We’re only beginning to really understand the interplay of the water flow and the nature of the ecosystem on the sea floor,” said Stein. “I think as we move away from the ridge crests, understand what’s going in the overall ocean, we’ll have a better understanding of how life is distributed and affects the oceans and our planet.”

The findings were reported in a letter printed in Nature Geoscience’s September 2008 issue. Other key authors of the letter include Andrew Fisher of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Robert Harris of Oregon State University. The lead author is Michael Hutnak, now with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Geyser, hot spring researchers, educators to meet at Yellowstone

This is one of more than 10,000 active geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park. Researchers and educators who study them will gather Jan. 10-13 in Yellowstone. (Photo courtesy of MSU).
This is one of more than 10,000 active geothermal features in Yellowstone National Park. Researchers and educators who study them will gather Jan. 10-13 in Yellowstone. (Photo courtesy of MSU).

More than 100 scientists and educators from the United States and abroad will gather Jan. 10-13 in Yellowstone National Park to share their findings on the unique biology and chemistry of geysers, hot springs, mud pots and steam vents.

Some of the best-known and most active researchers involved in Yellowstone geothermal biology and geochemistry will attend the conference at the Mammoth Hotel, said organizer Bill Inskeep of Montana State University. The conference will focus on Yellowstone geothermal systems, but it will also include discussions on the sun-heated salt lakes of Egypt, salt mats in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, and the microbes that dominate Russian hot springs.

Scientists who study extreme environments are drawn to Yellowstone because it contains more active geothermal features than any other location on the planet, Inskeep said. Those features are also very diverse, he added. Geothermal environments are obviously very hot, but they offer a variety of chemical extremes, some of which are relevant to applications in bioenergy and bioprocessing.

Researchers working with NASA who are interested in the search for life on other planets examine microorganisms that thrive in the extreme environments on this planet, Inskeep said. Those may be high temperatures or extremely acidic conditions. For visitors who are curious about the numerous and often brilliant colors in geothermal systems, this group of scientists can explain how the reds, greens and yellows that appear in Yellowstone’s hot springs relate to microorganisms and mineral deposits.

This is the third time since 2003 that Inskeep and his colleagues at MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute have organized the conference for researchers who are part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Coordination Network focused on Yellowstone’s geothermal biology. Conference lectures are free and open to the public, but space is limited. Those interested in attending should contact Zack Jay at (406) 994- 6404 or For questions regarding the conference or the RCN, contact Inskeep at (406) 994-5077.

The schedule of conference lectures is:

Thursday, Jan. 10

  • 8 p.m. — Extreme hydrothermal explosion events in Yellowstone National Park.

Friday, Jan. 11

  • 8:30 a.m. — Greater Yellowstone Science Learning Center and the Yellowstone Thermal Inventory
  • 8:50 a.m. — Change detection of Yellowstone’s active thermal areas using airborne and satellite thermal infrared sensors.
  • 9:10 a.m. — Chemical anatomy of the Firehole River: Results from the September 2007 synoptic sampling. Source and fate of thermal and non-thermal solutes in the Gibbon River of Yellowstone.
  • 9:40 a.m. — The influence of sublacustrine hydrothermal vent fluids on the geochemistry of Yellowstone Lake.
  • 10 a.m. — Yellowstone Lake: Genetic diversity in an aquatic, vent-impacted system.
  • 10:20 a.m. — Break.
  • 10:50 a.m. — Geochemical energy sources across Yellowstone.
  • 11:10 a.m. — A microbial inventory of Yellowstone thermal features. Geochemical controls on microbial community composition from varied hot spring environments.
  • 11:40 a.m. — GEOTHERM: The RCN relationship database focused on geothermal biology and geochemistry in Yellowstone National Park.
  • Noon — Lunch. Updates on benefit sharing and research permitting in Yellowstone.
  • 2 p.m. — Mammoth Hot Springs: Carbonate biomineralization in response to environmental change in temperature and oxygen concentration.
  • 2:20 p.m. — Diversity of Chloroflexus-like organisms in an iron-depositing hot spring in Yellowstone.
  • 2:40 p.m. — A comparison of H2 and H2S as energy sources for primary production in an acidic geothermal spring.
  • 3 p.m. — Nitrogen cycling at high temperatures: Thermophilic ammonia oxidizing Archaea in Yellowstone Hot Springs.
  • 3:20 p.m. — Ammonia-oxidizing Archaea in terrestrial hot springs.
  • 3:40 p.m. — The effect of environmental conditions on the distribution of the Mercuric Reductase gene in mercury-enriched acidic and circumneutral hot springs in Yellowstone National Park.
  • 4 p.m. — Isolation and characterization of early evolving mercury resistant bacteria in Yellowstone.
  • 4:20 p.m. — The diversity of the thermo-acidophilic Cyanidiales in Yellowstone, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland and the Philippines.

Saturday, Jan. 12

  • 8:20 a.m. — Insights into biofilm function and variability from environmental genomes and geochemistry.
  • 8:40 a.m. — Comparative metagenomic analysis of Aquificales-dominated YNP hot springs.
  • 9 a.m. — Assessing population level functional diversity in a microbial community by comparative genomic and metagenomic analyses.
  • 9:20 a.m. — Metagenomic approaches to studying the functional diversity of filamentous anoxygenic phototrophs in hot spring microbial mats.
  • 9:40 a.m. — Genetic basis of RubisCO adaptation at the thermal limit of photoautotrophy
  • 10 a.m. — Break.
  • 10:20 a.m. — Candidatus Chloracidobacterium thermophilum: the first chlorophototrophic Acidobacterium
  • 10:40 a.m. — Genomic and metagenomic analysis of Archaeal host and virus populations from Yellowstone’s high temperature acidic environments.
  • 11 a.m. — Using CRISPRs to understand local adaptation in host viral relationships.
  • 11:20 a.m. — A proteomics perspective of stress response in Sulfolobus solfataricus.
  • 11:40 a.m. — Microbial hosts with limited hospitality — a new RNA-based interference system.
  • Noon — Assembly of hot springs viral metagenomes to develop improved DNA polymerases.
  • 12:30 pm. — Lunch. RCN projects and priorities: YNP Metagenomc project

Sunday, Jan. 13

  • 8:20 a.m. — Hydrothermal systems: Islands of microbial diversity.
  • 8:40 a.m. — Metagenomics in a hypersaline microbial mat.
  • 9 a.m. — Microbially-dominated terrestrial hot spring mineral assemblages in Kamchatka Russia.
  • 9:20 a.m. — Geochemistry and microbiology of Great Basin Hot Springs. Are they different from Yellowstone Springs?
  • 9:40 a.m. — Life at the Edge: Halo-alkalithermophiles from sun-heated salt lakes in Egypt.
  • 10 a.m. — Break.
  • 10:30 a.m. — The astrobiology biogeocatalysis Research Center at MSU: The role of iron-sulfur compounds in the transition from the nonliving to the living world.
  • 10:50 a.m. — Bridging geothermal microbiology with the bioenergy program through an integrated “Omics” platform.
  • 11:10 a.m. — 21st century frontiers in microbial genomics and biotechnology.
  • 11:30 a.m. — Closing lunch. Discuss future directions, RCN priorities.