Michael Cox asked his friend Leon Mayou to install a sensor in his Ridgemark home to help predict exact locations of pending earthquakes. Photo by John Chadwell.
Michael Cox asked his friend Leon Mayou to install a sensor in his Ridgemark home to help predict exact locations of pending earthquakes. Photo by John Chadwell.

With the help of their friend, Michael Cox, Leon and Janet Mayou became the latest link in a network of monitoring stations that may one day give San Benito County an early warning beyond just a few seconds before the next earthquake strikes by pinpointing not only the location, but the time of the quake.

As Janet led moral support from a golf cart and Leon climbed a ladder inside their garage of their Ridgemark home in Hollister where he installed a magnetometer on May 25, Cox explained to BenitoLink that the new addition to the Mayou’s home will link up with four more spread out between Alaska and Hollister.

The network of sensors will send data to students in New York to analyze and will, hopefully, one day give people throughout California hours or even a day’s warning, called a precursor instead of just seconds. Sensors may even identify the location of an earthquake. 

Leon said the unit does not notify them if it detects a precursor. The data goes straight to New York for analysis.

The Mayous are now part of a network known as A World Bridge that was inspired and guided by the research of Friedemann Freund, adjunct professor at San Jose State University and senior scientist at NASA Ames. Freund studies the electromagnetic behavior of rocks and minerals. 

According to Professor Ron Fortunato at Trillium Learning, who is affiliated with NASA and the Teacher in Space Program, Freund’s hypothesis is that a particular atomic bond failure is responsible for energy spikes that disturb local magnetic fields large enough to detect prior to an earthquake, or an “Earthquake Signal Precursor”.

The theory is that by using several magnetometers to monitor certain frequencies it might be possible to pinpoint a specific location before a quake, or ground failure, hits. 

San Benito County is awash with fault zones. There are two fault zones running under Hollister: both branches of the Calaveras fault. There is also the Quien Sabe fault below Tres Pinos. And then there is the 800-mile long San Andreas fault directly beneath San Juan Bautista. 

There are countless earthquakes on the planet every day. Just in the last 24 hours of May 27 there were 32 magnitude 2.5+ earthquakes around the world, but the closest one to San Benito County was at Lake Davis, in the Sierras, near Reno, NV, at 2.7 magnitude, according to the U.S. Geological Service (USGS). 

While not as well known as USGS, Volcano Discover, a geo adventure website that collects volcanic and earthquake data, stated that as of May 27, during the past 30 days, San Benito County experienced three quakes of magnitude 3.0 or above and 33 between 2.0 and 3.0. There were also 116 below 2.0, which are not normally felt.

Dr. Tom Pfieffer, a geologist and volcanologist with Volcano Discover, told BenitoLink, “For the U.S., we mainly use USGS as principal source, but sometimes people report the quakes to us earlier based on their shaking experience, as well as other source agencies, but typically, after a few minutes, it’s backed by USGS.”

The units were designed by high school robotics students in Alaska and the data will be collected remotely by students in New York. Cox volunteers with Trillium Global Learning Service, which designed and implemented a high-performance professional development program to allow American schools to collaborate on worldwide, multidisciplinary projects. He said the organization wanted to make a connection between the high school in Alaska and the scientific community to work on research projects.

“One of the projects the high school worked on was building a sensitive magnetometer according to Doctor Freund’s research focusing on a particular narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum that they felt would pick up precursors to earthquakes weeks or hours in advance,” he said. “That would give people more time than the current system, called the shake alert, to detect the primary wave that radiates out from the earthquake. The electronic communication can beat the earthquake wave because it moves at the speed of sound, whereas digital communications move at light speed.”

In an effort to improve the use of precursors to give people more time to “duck and cover,” Cox said there was a need to make the system less variable to be more useful.

Students are hoping that narrowing their area of study will result in more reliability. Cox said of Mayou, “He’s putting in a monitoring station with a magnetometer in it that will send communications back to New York where the students will be monitoring these earthquake precursor signals.”

He asked Janet and Leon Mayou if they would be willing to host a station in San Benito County.

“I felt putting a station in Hollister would make a good test case,” he said. “There’s one in my place in Santa Cruz, there’s one in Milpitas, there’s one in New Almaden, and then the one in Alaska, near Anchorage.”

He explained the system creates a map that shows vectors that point to the earthquake before it happens. “As rock stresses, then breaks and ruptures, an intense electromagnetic field disturbance occurs,” he said. “They’re monitoring for this. We already have this triangle of sensors in the Bay Area, but a lot of the earthquakes are between San Jose and Hollister, so by putting a station here it challenges the students because the vectors are going to point toward the Bay Area.”

Cox said because of the success of the Alaska station, the students decided to add monitors in California. He said the cost of the program is paid through donations, and volunteers do all the work.

Each component costs $5,000 and runs on a series of small single-board computers developed in the United Kingdom by the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

“It’s a very small computer,” Leon chimed in from high up the ladder as he held out the small box. “When you think about how big computers used to be, now we’re down to this that does it all. This is the same kind of equipment they’d be using at the robotics lab at San Benito High School. I think this is the processor they use. It’s easy to program.”

The San Benito High School robotics instructor did not respond to BenitoLink’s request for a comment.

Cox said Fortunato started Trillium Learning to create a better scientific connection between high schools, universities and private research companies. The students in New York are collecting data through remote learning procedures. He said if the San Benito High School robotics lab were interested in participating, Trillium is looking for schools to partner with.

“It’s really interesting that all of this came out of an Alaska high school robotics lab,” Cox said.


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John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...