Could your smartphone detect an earthquake?

Countries looking for cheap earthquake warning systems might want to try apps and smartphones after scientists discovered that smartphones could be used as an affordable alternative to sophisticated earthquake monitoring networks.

The Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in smartphones could detect earthquakes and trigger warnings seconds before the strongest waves from the quake begin, researchers wrote in Friday’s American-based journal Science Advances.

“Most of the world does not receive earthquake warnings, mainly due to the cost of building the necessary scientific monitoring networks,” said Benjamin Brooks, USGS geophysicist and project lead.

Although many parts of the world are prone to earthquakes, systems that detect the start of an earthquake and send warnings to people before they feel the ground shaking are operating in only a few regions, including Japan and Mexico.

GPS receivers in smartphones, though less accurate than the scientific-grade equipment, could detect medium to large earthquakes like the 7.0 magnitude quake that rocked Haiti in 2010, killing more than 200,000 people.

After analysing the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, the researchers concluded that lives could have been saved if GPS data had been used to send warnings before seismic waves reached Tokyo and before the daedly tsunami wave reached the shore.

“The speed of an electronic warning travels faster than the earthquake shaking does,” said Craig Glennie, one of the authors of the report and a professor at the University of Houston.

The researchers found that data gathered from fewer than 5,000 smartphones in a metropolitan area could be analysed fast enough to issue a warning for people further away from the epicentre and potentially save lives.

The researchers didn’t specify if smartphone users would receive warnings through messages, calls or applications.

“Crowd-sourced data are less precise (than high-quality networks), but for larger earthquakes … they contain enough information to detect that an earthquake has occurred, information necessary for early warning,” Susan Owen, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has already agreed to test a pilot warning system comprising smartphone sensors and scientific-grade sensors along the Chilean coast.

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Magdalena Mis is a correspondent for Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Image: In this 2013 file photo men are silhouetted against a video screen as they pose with smartphones in this photo illustration taken in the central Bosnian town of Zenica. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic


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