Not far from Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, an alarm pierces the air. At a nearby elementary school, hundreds of Japanese children drop to the floor, scramble beneath their desks and hold on for dear life. It’s March 9, 2012, two days before the first anniversary of the disastrous 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in which more than 15,000 people died.

Thankfully, this time the “drop, cover and hold” response is just a drill—with more than 158,000 participants taking part in the first Japanese ShakeOut.

Developed by the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) housed at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the ShakeOut program is one of many ways USC is working to keep the people of the Pacific Rim safe, whether from natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis or man-made threats such as cybercrime.

Tracking Tremors

earthquake-gif-800 1991-2016: Earthquakes measuring larger than 3.0 on the Richter scale

In 2015, more than 43 million people worldwide—and more than 10 million in California alone—registered for the ShakeOut to improve their earthquake preparedness. The Great ShakeOut earthquake drills, coordinated globally by SCEC, prepare people for future earthquakes through community-based rehearsals of survival tactics.

Not surprisingly, many Pacific Rim nations are signing up to participate. After all, this 25,000-mile-long horseshoe-shaped zone isn’t dubbed the “Ring of Fire” for nothing. About 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur in this region, which is also home to 452 volcanoes. A nearly continuous series of oceanic trenches, volcanic arcs and belts and tectonic plate movements make it geologically volatile.

“As a major research university located on the Pacific Rim’s eastern edge, USC is ideally placed to lead efforts to help the region prepare for inevitable disasters,” says SCEC Director Thomas Jordan, University Professor, holder of the William M. Keck Foundation Chair in Geological Sciences and professor of Earth sciences.

Led by USC, SCEC is a collaboration of more than 60 institutions, including Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia, Stanford and Caltech.

In the case of earthquakes, information means power.

But their efforts go beyond drills. They also hunt for seismology’s holy grail: more accurate earthquake prediction.

“SCEC is piloting the development of earthquake forecasting, not only in California, but around the world,” Jordan says.

Through the Collaboratory for the Study of Earthquake Predictability, launched by SCEC in 2006 with support from the W. M. Keck Foundation, geoscientists are using carefully designed experiments to test earthquake forecasting models in different types of fault systems.

Until now, the study of earthquake prediction has been hampered by the lack of an adequate experimental infrastructure. To remedy that, SCEC is working with its international partners to develop a distributed virtual laboratory that can support global research.

Using software developed at SCEC, more than 400 models are now being tested worldwide, enabling scientists to compare earthquakes in different fault zones and tectonic environments.

Jordan’s team also is trying to understand aftershocks—why some earthquakes produce swarms of them and some not as many—by examining aftershock sequences in California, Japan and New Zealand. That has real-world import: After the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand, an aftershock wreaked more damage than the original quake.

Los Angeles’ vast sedimentary basin shakes like a bowl of Jell-O during earthquakes.

In the case of earthquakes, information means power. That’s what’s behind SCEC’s partnership with the University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute and the Disaster Prevention Institute at the University of Kyoto. Through their Virtual Institute for the Study of Earthquake Systems, they look for areas in Japan and the United States at high risk for quake damage.

Los Angeles and Tokyo share a lot in common.

“Like Tokyo, Los Angeles is situated in a vast sedimentary basin, which shakes like a bowl of Jell-O during earthquakes,” Jordan says. “When earthquake ruptures occur, they feed energy into those basins, causing destructive ground motion.”

SCEC scientists model these seismic waves and factor them into their hazard calculations, which they’re sharing with their Japanese colleagues. This is especially important to public safety in Tokyo and the Kanto Basin, home to nearly a third of Japan’s people.

Says Jordan: “SCEC is unique in its ability to bring people together around the Pacific Rim to focus on how to best predict earthquakes and protect populations against the destruction they cause.”

Flood Insurance

Earthquakes are bad enough, but the tsunamis they can trigger have potential to cause even wider devastation, as demonstrated by the 2011 quake in Japan.

Civil engineer Costas Synolakis of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering wasn’t surprised at the damage wrought by that quake’s resulting tsunami. Synolakis leads a team at USC’s Tsunami Research Center that developed computer models used operationally by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to forecast tsunamis in the Pacific from warning stations in Alaska, Hawaii and Australia.

“We can expect a tsunami in the Pacific every two years, sometimes once a year,” Synolakis says. “Ten years ago there were no real-time forecasts of where or when a tsunami would strike. Now, thanks to improved forecasting tools developed here at USC, more targeted evacuations are possible.”

Since 1992, Synolakis has led 20 post-tsunami reconnaissance surveys in the Pacific Rim, visiting Nicaragua, the Solomon Islands, Peru, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, Japan, Thailand, Samoa, Chile and the Easter Islands. The investigators go far beyond forecasting: They also educate. “We visit communities, study what happened and teach locals simple steps to protect themselves,” he says.

These lessons save lives. When a 7.3 earthquake hit the South Pacific island of Vanuatu in 1999, residents remembered what they had learned from a 45-minute documentary on tsunamis based largely on USC’s research work and filmed on campus.

“Everyone self-evacuated, because after seeing our documentary they knew if they felt the earth shake, they had to run to high ground,” Synolakis says. “So although the tsunami struck at night, wiping out a village that was home to 300 people, all but two residents survived.”

The same scenario played out when a tsunami triggered by the 2010 Chilean earthquake hit Juan Fernandez, also known as Robinson Crusoe Island. Residents knew to self-evacuate, largely after an outreach campaign led by USC a decade earlier.

Synolakis’ goal is to reduce local warning time on tsunamis to less than 10 minutes following a quake, and to produce location-specific warnings.

“It’s one thing to put all of Southern California on tsunami alert, and wait and wait and then cancel, and it’s another to broadcast an announcement in ample time, at specific locales, saying, ‘A 40-foot tsunami is coming, evacuate now!’ That’s what we’re working toward—targeted warnings with real-time flooding maps.”

But sometimes the most damaging part of a tsunami comes later than you’d think. Following a 1960 Chilean earthquake, the resulting tsunami that hit Hilo, Hawaii, produced its biggest wave an hour after the first. By that time, officials had allowed evacuated residents to return home, and 61 people perished in the confusion. Today, with knowledge from computer modeling, authorities may be able to make more informed decisions about public safety.

How to Foil Cybercrime

In the months after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan, residents faced another insidious threat: cybercrime. Emails pummeled inboxes with viruses and search engines funneled computer-users to infected websites. It’s the kind of attack USC’s Terry Benzel has come to expect.

At USC’s DETERLab, Benzel leads efforts to advance the science of cybersecurity, including developing sophisticated tools and methodologies for researchers.

As the Pacific Rim expands its communications infrastructure, hackers and spammers are looking for vulnerabilities, says Benzel, deputy director of the Internet and Networked Systems division at the USC Information Sciences Institute (ISI). “The DETERLab can model and analyze new systems and technology to protect against cybercrime and validate new solutions to ensure maximum data protection and internet security even in the event of natural disasters, like earthquakes.”


Benzel’s collaborators in Japan are working hard to keep the internet functioning in the face of natural disasters or cyberattacks.

It’s especially critical in Japan, where police in 2014 launched a national cybercrime task force. Hacking there is such a problem that simply creating a computer virus can land a person three years in jail. Cybersecurity is a key area where Japan and the U.S. are deepening their military partnership. In new security guidelines released last year, the U.S. will extend its cyber defense umbrella over Japan, helping its Pacific Rim ally cope with the growing threat of online attacks against military bases and infrastructure such as power grids.

Japan’s cybersecurity chief admitted the nation lags behind the U.S. in combatting the problem, but partnerships like the one with DETERLab could help.

The Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the Nara Institute of Science and Technology and the University of Tokyo collaborate with the DETERLab to advance cybersecurity in the Pacific Rim. They created and can share a large-scale testbed facility where they can test security.

“For a 2012–2013 National Science Foundation-funded project, we connected the DETERLab with Japan’s StarBED testbed,” Benzel says. “We run distributed experiments, bringing leading-edge tools and experimental methodologies to researchers in both countries.”

Benzel’s collaborators in Japan are working hard to keep the internet functioning in the face of natural disasters or cyberattacks. “If a tsunami knocks out a large chunk of the internet, they want to be able to continue to use the net to support rescue operations. Similarly, if a botnet disables key sites, the rest of the internet should continue to be useful to people,” she says.

Working with USC, Japanese researchers have studied two major problems: how to keep website names correct (DNS security) and how to rapidly re-route connections between browsers and sites when physical connections are failing (internet routing).

DNS security is important because it ensures that you can find websites and services on the internet, and that they can’t be “spoofed”—used as seemingly innocent disguises for malicious purposes. All of this work is aimed at creating a resilient internet.

“To solve [these potential problems] you need to consider how large numbers of computers will react when bad things happen,” Benzel says. “Testbeds let us watch hundreds of thousands of computers at once and make bad things happen to them under careful control.”

Using DETERLab and the StarBED testbeds together “lets us study solutions to these problems in a much bigger world and with more interesting complications than either of us could do alone,” Benzel says. “The Japanese have key insights from their recent physical disasters and USC/ISI has experience creating the large worlds and connecting facilities.

“Together we are able to attack these key problems in ways no one else can.”

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