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  • 'How-to' guide will boost seismic networks in Africa

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[CAPE TOWN] A group of US academic institutions is putting together the first guide to setting up sustainable seismological monitoring centres in developing countries. The guide will, for example, speed up the creation of a pan-African network of earth science monitoring stations.

A draft of the document was discussed at the Seismological Society of America's 2011 Annual Meeting, in Memphis, this week (13–15 April). The document is being put together by Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology — a US-based academic consortium that supports open access to seismic data.

"The idea is that governments would be able to pick up this document, in which the nuts and bolts of setting up a network will be explained clearly, so that a non-specialist government management can read it and understand what it takes to build, maintain and operate a network," Andrew Nyblade, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, United States told SciDev.Net.

But the finished version is unlikely to be ready for at least another year, he added.

Seismic data is important for predicting and monitoring events like earthquakes, and also important to the oil, mining and construction industries of developing countries.

"Over the decades there have been various resources put into developing seismic networks in developing countries, and very few of them have been sustainable," Nyblade said.

He presented his experiences of setting up an African seismic network under the AfricaArray, a six-year-old public-private partnership that supports training and research in earth, atmospheric and space sciences in Africa.

The main constraints are expertise and money, Nyblade, one of the AfricaArray's co-directors, said. In Zambia, a donor-funded seismic network created in the 1980s failed when the funding ran out — and the country had neither the resources nor the know-how to maintain it.

A 'how-to' guide to seismic networks would explicitly explain the commitments — in terms of time, expertise and staff — necessary to maintain such networks over the long-term.

"With such a guide, we would have been able to better assist many government agencies over the past several years in constructing sustainable networks, realising substantial cost savings over the long-term," said Nyblade.

The AfricaArray comprises 40 stations in 15 countries. The stations collect seismic data and by the end of the year, 20 of them will also record weather and global positioning system (GPS) data that could monitor groundwater levels and collect atmospheric data needed for climate models.

The network now generates Africa's most complete seismic dataset, and is used to train a new generation of Masters and PhD students, said Nyblade.

However, Africa's seismology monitoring capacity is still very weak compared with the developed world, and the network has few stations in West Africa, and hardly any in central parts of the continent.

"The African crust and mantle are amongst the least studied in the world," said Zibusiso Gumede, a geophysics researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, who is responsible for installing and maintaining the AfricaArray seismic stations.

Eventually, the network should cover these areas also, said Nyblade, but it will not happen overnight.

"We envision the network expanding across the entire continent eventually, but that will take time and more funding," he said.

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