Thanks to weather forecasting and satellite imagery, coastal areas know several days in advance about the approach of hurricanes. Likewise, the population living in “tornado alley” benefit from Doppler radar technology with early warnings of tornado activity. Earthquake early warning technology however, is less than adequate in areas hard hit by them such as California.
The United States Geological Survey has a prototype system called ShakeAlert which has had successful tests. It consists of a system of seismic sensing stations, each of which have underground sensors which transmit data in real-time to a central location. While this is promising, its problem is cost. It is a multimillion dollar project that is having funding problems.
On the other hand, one mobile app installed on the smartphones of thousands of people can also serve as an earthquake early warning system. The app would use the motion sensor on smartphones to sense the ground movements of an earthquake. It would also distinguish between the ordinary movements of smartphone use from those of a temblor. When it senses an earthquake, it would send out information about the quake’s time, location, and magnitude to a central location.
Berkeley scientists have developed an app called MyShake that does this for the purpose of collecting seismic data from the smartphones of thousands of people. This more extensive data set will further their understanding of earthquakes.
UC Berkeley also plans to develop an app specifically for use as an early warning system which will provide people with several seconds of warning before an earthquake hits. This gives them enough time to duck under a table or get out of a building. Several seconds of warning can save many lives in severe earthquakes.
The mobile app’s advantages over the expensive ShakeAlert system include its low-cost and its vastly superior number of measurement points which are the smartphones of thousands of people. It won’t replace the ShakeAlert system because smartphone motion sensors are crude compared to ShakeAlert’s sophisticated underground sensors. However, the two complement each other very well.
Developing countries which don’t have the resources or funds for sophisticated ShakeAlert type systems stand to benefit from cheap mobile app systems. Countries such as Nepal and Peru that have severe earthquakes also have millions of smartphone users.