The fight to save thousands of lives with sea-floor sensors

Jun 23, 2017

By Alexandra Witze

Jerry Paros is worried about the geological time bomb ticking away just off the coast near his home in Washington state. But unlike the millions of people who fear the earthquake and tsunami that will one day rock that region, Paros is doing something about it. His company made millions of dollars building exquisitely precise quartz sensors for oil, gas and other industry applications. Now he wants to use them to save the world from natural disasters.

At the Redmond headquarters of his company, Paroscientific, the 79-year-old inventor picks up a volleyball-sized metallic rack from a table, lifts it to shoulder height and then lowers it. Inside the contraption, sensors pick up the tiny change in atmospheric pressure as the device travels up and down. “Here, I’ll give you a very expensive doorbell,” he says, opening and shutting the office door to change the air pressure yet again. In the air, Paros’s instrument can register such delicate shifts in pressure. But the ultimate destination of this device is offshore, a few kilometres below the waves, where it will sense the weight of the water above it to detect changes in the depth of the sea floor.

Paros wants his ultra-precise gauges to be the heart of an early-warning system designed to detect when an earthquake shifts the sea floor, unleashing a tsunami. He has donated US$2 million to the University of Washington and collaborated with its researchers to test the sensors off the coastline of the Pacific Northwest.

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