IRA FLATOW, host:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.
What happens when you get thousands of geologists together in one place? Well, they like to swap stories like the rest of us, trade anecdotes and experiences. And that's just what they did this week at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
Some were showing off a spectacular, underwater volcanic eruption on high-definition video, others who are thinking about how to track earthquakes with Twitter faster than they can with seismic observations.
My next guest has been reporting from the meeting all week, and you can read articles and blog posts from the meeting at sciencenews.org. Sid Perkins is the earth science writer for Science News in Washington. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Sid.
Mr. SID PERKINS (Earth Science Writer, Science News): Great to be with you again.
FLATOW: Tell us about these - we have a video of those underwater, deep volcano eruptions. They're just spectacular.
Mr. PERKINS: Incredibly impressive, yes. This was an eruption that occurred at an undersea volcano about 200 kilometers, or about a half-day's cruise, southwest of Samoa. And the sea floor there in general is about two miles deep But this particular sub-you-know-marine(ph) volcano rises within three quarters of a mile of the surface, which is still, you know, 4,000 feet down.
Mr. PERKINS: And previous expedition to this area, late in 2008 - there was nothing unusual at the surface, but deep in the water, they had seen, you know, odd ocean chemistry and lots of fine particles suspended in the water, other signs that an eruption might be happening.
So in May of this year, they went back, and they took along the remotely operated vehicle, Jason, which they sent down to find what one scientist described as an underwater Fourth of July. It was a full-blown eruption going on. This is the first time they've ever seen lava going across the ocean floor that deep, and...
FLATOW: And how high is it piling up? How fast is it coming out?
Mr. PERKINS: Well, they - during their visit to the peak, they passed by one portion of the volcano and made some observations. They went away and did some other things, came back three hours later, and it was 10 feet taller.
Mr. PERKINS: But they're suspecting that some of that is going to, you know, slide away in an underwater landslide as soon as it, you know, gets too steep.
FLATOW: There's footage of it on our Web site, at sciencefriday.com, and it really - you know, it does look like the Fourth of July. If you didn't know that you were underwater, right, it would look like it's just going way up in the sky.
Mr. PERKINS: Well, you know, again, that video is pretty impressive. There's bright flashes of red-hot lava in there with the rolling plumes of steam and gas and this deep, rumbling noise that, you know, undoubtedly riled up the scientists presenting in the room next door.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PERKINS: It was quite a display, and they've got still images. They've got this video that they've posted on the NOAA site, and we've got a few posted on our site, as well.
But the immense water pressure there at that depth allowed the scientists to steer the submersible very close, within 10 feet or so, of the volcano eruption there. And they were able to snatch samples of lava out and do some analyses on those. And it's a particular type of lava that's only been seen in extinct volcanoes that have erupted at least a million years ago. This is the first time they've ever seen it actually, you know, coming out on the Earth, you know, on land or at sea.
Mr. PERKINS: It's a water-rich, magnesium-rich type of lava, and they're looking at these sorts of - you know, analyses of these samples to help them figure out, you know more about how Earth's, you know, tectonic activity recycles Earth's ocean crust.
FLATOW: Another thing they were talking about there has to do with sort of a citizen-science approach to earthquake monitoring. Tell us what that idea is about.
Mr. PERKINS: Well, there's a couple of different programs on through the USGS, and my original title for the article was "What's Shaking in Your Neighborhood?"
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PERKINS: And it has to do with people - well, one part of the program is something called the Quick Twitter Earthquake Detection Program. And what the USGS scientists have done is developed some software that essentially analyzes the incredible stream of information coming through Twitter. And they search for key words related to earthquakes, like quake, temblor, you know, tsunami, that sort of thing, and they can go through and analyze patterns of where those are coming from, if they're coming from, you know, devices that are location-enabled, GPS-enabled.
And they can look at where these things are coming from and the description of, you know, what people are feeling to kind of get an idea of how widespread the quake is and how it might be felt. And they can see these sorts of things almost immediately as they're coming through the Twitter feed, as opposed to the analyses of, you know, seismometers and those sort of detailed things that help you pin down an epicenter, which sometimes takes 15 minutes or more.
FLATOW: So you can - so through all - all these temblor Twitters that are coming in, they're more - I wouldn't say accurate, but they're faster. You get faster results from looking at the tweets than you do from looking at the instruments.
Mr. PERKINS: Well, you do, yes. And so many earthquakes, I mean, some of the messages are as simple as, you know, earthquake, OMG. And others are, you know, more people talking about lamps swaying and pictures falling off the desk and those sorts of things.
Mr. PERKINS: So that sort of information is really similar to another program that USGS has already got on its Web site called Did You Feel It, where people can go in and, you know, provide information about their zip code and, you know, what they felt it and when they felt it and that sort of thing. But that is much slower and much smaller data sample size than going in and, you know, just data-mining this feed as it's coming.
FLATOW: This seems to be a trend of the future, using all these, you know, handheld devices. We're going to talk more about this later in the hour. But you have people out there who are basically reporting on the spot about what they're seeing, what they're feeling.
Mr. PERKINS: It's true, yeah. And, again, they're not having to go to the USGS site and put in this information. It's something that's being monitored as it's going out to the world.
Another one of those citizen-seismologist projects is - USGS has developed a low-cost, rather inexpensive seismometer that can be put in people's basements to fill in holes in the network of seismographs that are usually put out very far from urban areas because they're very sensitive, and...
FLATOW: But, you know, if your - your iPhone has a motion detector on it. Could you lay it on the ground and let it shake, possibly?
Mr. PERKINS: I'm not sure whether that would work or not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: But it's not beyond - right? It's not beyond the realm of the impossible someday?
Mr. PERKINS: Well, no. There's all these sensors built into the iPhone, and they provide this data stream. And yeah. It could be an interesting way to get the data out.
FLATOW: Seems like a lot of interesting schmoozing going on out there, Sid.
Mr. PERKINS: There's quite a lot. There's about 16,000 scientists out here this week. And as you mentioned, they're all going to each other's presentations and swapping ideas and figuring out if somebody else has an answer to the problem they've been working on for years.
FLATOW: That's terrific. That's terrific. Sid, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us, and have fun out there at the meeting.
Mr. PERKINS: Thank you much. I appreciate your time.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Sid Perkins is the earth sciences writer for Science News in Washington, and he has his articles and blogs. You can read them at sciencenews.org.