Your smartphone could warn us all of an earthquake

13 Apr 2015

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Researchers believe the widespread use of smartphones could provide an early warning system for earthquakes, thanks to the ever-improving sensors within the devices.

While obviously not as accurate as true, scientific-grade earthquake monitoring equipment, the advanced GPS capabilities of modern smartphones could potentially detect solid earth displacement caused by a fault line.

By looking at it on a macro scale – given the proliferation of smartphone use within densely populated areas – mass results could give pointers as to what’s going on on the ground. In this sense, for macro, read ‘crowd sourcing’.

"Crowd-sourced alerting means that the community will benefit by data generated from the community," said Sarah Minson, United States Geological Survey (USGS) geophysicist and lead author of the study, which was published in Science Advances last week.

Using smartphones as an early warning solution could prove remarkably cost-efficient, given that very few areas of the world currently have scientific-grade alternatives – the vast majority of countries simply cannot justify the cost of installing them.

Early warning system

Cell phones can detect ground motion and warn others before strong shaking arrives. Base map originally created by NASA. Artwork credit: Emiliano Rodriguez Nuesch with Pacifico.

It also wouldn’t be hard to find peole willing to allow their phone use to go towards the research, especially if you look at the incredible early success of the ResearchKit launch by Apple.

In just one day thousands of iPhone 6 users signed up to give over their anonymous information to further the study of illnesses like Parkinson’s disease, asthma and cardiac issues.

To test out this idea, though, researchers in USGS ran a simulation alongside data from the Tohoku-oki magnitute 9 earthquake from a few years back.

Surprisingly, they found that just a fraction of the population needed to use these devices to give a decent early warning – the example given is just 5,000 smarphones in a metropolitan area being enough to warn the masses.

That’s because electronic data transfer can be far quicker than an expanding earthquake, thus the ability to warn towns further away of what is imminintely coming.

"The US earthquake early warning system is being built on our high-quality scientific earthquake networks, but crowd-sourced approaches can augment our system and have real potential to make warnings possible in places that don't have high-quality networks," said Douglas Given, USGS coordinator of the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System.

Smartphone earthqake image, via Shutterstock

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Gordon Hunt is a journalist at Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com