Even though you might not notice them happening, earthquakes are incredibly common in seismically active regions – it’s just that most of them aren’t particularly energetic compared to the more devastating ones that make the news. With this in mind, it’s remarkable that a new earthquake-detecting smartphone app called MyShake is able to pick up relatively moderate tremors even when your phone is moving around in your pocket.
Developed by University of California (UC) Berkeley scientists the app, currently only available for Android devices, is in its testing phase. Ultimately, they hope it will not just improve the science of seismology, but will also act as an early warning network.
Seismic waves travel through the Earth’s crust at up to speeds of 8 kilometers (5 miles) per second, meaning that even deep-seated earthquakes are felt at the surface in a matter of a few seconds. However, this nascent app network means that if those nearer the epicenter register it on their phone, those farther away will have a vital few seconds to move to a safer place before the tremor reaches them.
This network could also be hooked up to local transportation and infrastructure. When a large earthquake is detected, these could be quickly shut down in order to minimize damage.
“Just a few seconds’ warning is all you need to ‘drop, take cover and hold on’,” Professor Richard Allen from the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, and one of the lead researchers on the project, told BBC News. “If everyone got under a sturdy table, the estimate is that we could reduce the number of injuries in a quake by 50 percent.”
Although seismological networks like MyShake exist, they use traditional seismometers which are expensive to set up, maintain and install. MyShake can be installed on any new smartphone, and takes advantage of the incredibly sensitive accelerometers installed in them.
As the accompanying study in Science Advances notes, this app can detect magnitude 5 earthquakes at distances of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away. With enough smartphones spread across a large enough area, this network should be able to estimate the location of the earthquake’s epicenter, and its magnitude, in real-time.
The on-phone software is able to carefully filter out normal, everyday movements from the types of vibrations caused by earthquakes, which have a wave pattern distinct from any other type of natural or artificial event. In simulations, this app was able to detect an earthquake 93 percent of the time.
This is fairly impressive, but in real terms this means that seven out of 100 earthquake-like vibrations are mistakenly identified as moderate or major earthquakes. This would cause considerable panic among the populace, so the app is currently being released to users in order to gather data and improve its precision. For now, phones with the app won’t alert users to any impending, potentially dangerous earthquakes.
“In my opinion, this is cutting-edge research that will transform seismology,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Qingkai Kong, lead programmer on the project, in a statement. It is being developed as part of ShakeAlert, a U.S. collaborative effort to develop next-generation earthquake early warning systems.