PC hard disk system warns of tsunamis

Governments seeking inexpensive technology to warn of tsunamis could be interested in a free software application that monitors vibrations in the hard disks of computers in an attempt to detect the undersea earthquakes that cause tsunamis.

The Tsunami Harddisk Detector is the brainchild of Michael Stadler, who demonstrated the prototype system earlier this week at the Ars Electronica exhibition in Linz, Austria.

As part of their operation, hard disks measure vibrations in order to keep the read-write head of the disk on track. These measurements can be read from some hard disks. The Tsunami Harddisk Detector captures this vibration data and shares it with computers in other locations connected via a peer-to-peer network to determine whether an earth tremor is occurring.

In the peer-to-peer network, several participating computers act as supernodes, which analyze the data received from the other "sensing" nodes. The supernodes are able to ignore vibrations generated by a computer being kicked or shaken, by recording how many computers report the same vibrations simultaneously.

If an earthquake that could lead to a tsunami is detected, the supernodes inform the other nodes. Computers running the client software and connected to the peer-to-peer network can then warn of such events.

The software is able to provide such warnings because the seismic waves produced by earthquakes travel at about 5,000 kilometers per hour, while tsunamis move much slower at 500 to 1,000 kilometers per hour, Stadler explains on his Web site. The speed difference leaves time to evaluate tremors and, if necessary, warn of a tsunami.

On his Web site, however, Stadler points out that his system is still in the experimental stage with some inherent problems and can't be fully relied on to provide a "serious prediction" of a tsunami risk in its present configuration.

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