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Satellite links make for faster earthquake information - 20/08/1998

Scientists will soon have instantaneous access to high-quality information from seismographs around New Zealand thanks to an Australian satellite link.

Telecommunications company Telstra New Zealand Limited has signed a five-year contract with the Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Limited to provide real-time earthquake data to seismologists at the Institute's Wairakei and Wellington offices.

At present, precious minutes can tick away as scientists use telephone lines to dial into individual seismographs around New Zealand to determine the size, location and depth of an earthquake.

The satellite link means that information on earthquake activity in New Zealand will soon be available in real-time on a round-the-clock basis. It also means that a big earthquake is less likely to disrupt the communication links between scientists and their instruments in the field.

The agreement with Telstra marks the first stage of a four-year upgrade of the Institute's national instrument network that will see up to 50 seismographs throughout New Zealand linked by satellite.

Within the next three months the first six seismograph stations will be brought into the satellite link. They are at Cambridge, Whakapapa, Rotorua, Nuhaka near Gisborne, Denniston near Westport, and at McQueen's Valley, Banks Peninsula. Other stations will be linked into the satellite network in phases.

Telstra New Zealand spokeswoman Nicola Lamont said Telstra had worked closely with the Institute to provide the upgraded service that would be critical to all of New Zealand.

" This is another demonstration of Telstra's ability to provide business solutions based on innovative thinking,'' Ms Lamont said.

Institute Hazards Group Manager Robin Falconer said the stream of real-time earthquake data would enable the Institute to provide detailed information on earthquakes more rapidly.

'' Our clients and the public of New Zealand expect us to be able to deliver rapid and accurate information on earthquakes at all times, and in particular during a disaster,'' Dr Falconer said.

" We wanted a telecommunications solution that was of the highest quality and robust enough to cope with the harsh weather conditions at some of our seismograph stations.''

The upgraded equipment will allow the Institute to offer a customised service to businesses, government agencies and local authorities needing to keep an eye on particular threats.

For example, power companies need to know immediately after an earthquake if ground shaking has damaged power stations and transmission equipment so systems can be shut down quickly and safely. Likewise, companies running ports, airports and transport services need to know the exact location of an earthquake and the likely extent of damage so they can respond quickly.

An immediate readout of an earthquake's location will also allow a tsunami warning to be issued within minutes if an earthquake is centred off-shore, Dr Falconer said.

Under the agreement, Telstra owns and maintains the satellite communication equipment, which will include a satellite dish sited next to each of the Institute's seismographs, and the Institute pays a monthly fee for the data transfer.

'' Data will be transmitted from each seismograph to a satellite and then to Australia where it is collated and transmitted back to New Zealand via the same satellite. It will be beamed into our offices in Wellington and Wairakei within two seconds of ground tremors occurring.''

In addition to the new satellite system, the Institute is also modernising its earthquake measuring equipment throughout New Zealand.

Dr Falconer said the Institute had selected an American-made seismograph to replace its network of ageing instruments. About a year had been spent evaluating six different makes from around the world before the American model had been chosen as the most suitable for New Zealand conditions.

The new instruments, about the size of a large suit case, are being housed in newly-built sheds with a concrete floor. Most of the sites are on farmland.

'' Site selection is crucial. The instruments need to be on solid rock to ensure accurate recordings of seismic waves. They also have to be well away from traffic and other sources of artificial ground noise.''