How Smart Phones Could Bring Early Earthquake Detection to Developing World

By Spotts, Pete | The Christian Science Monitor, April 10, 2015 | Go to article overview

How Smart Phones Could Bring Early Earthquake Detection to Developing World


Spotts, Pete, The Christian Science Monitor


A smart phone sensing the first weak tremors from a nearby earthquake to warn that strong shaking is on its way? Yep, they're planning an app for that.

A team of geophysicists has found that a modest collection of smart phones capable of using data from navigation satellites has the potential to serve as a cheap early-warning network for large earthquakes.

The proof-of-concept analysis found that a network of smart phones comparable to an LG Google Nexus 5 also can deliver accurate measurements of an earthquake's strength and quickly pinpoint the epicenter.

In practice, the concept could bring early warnings to millions of people who would otherwise be caught off guard. Such a system could be especially valuable for developing nations with limited resources to invest in state-of-the-art seismology equipment.

The goal is not to find a cheaper replacement for existing, dense networks that use science-grade monitoring equipment, notes Benjamin Brooks, a geophysicist with the US Geological Survey office in Menlo Park, Calif., and a member of the research team. These networks detect a broader range of potentially damaging quake magnitudes than smart phones can, at least as the phones currently are configured.

But only eight relatively small regions around the globe use high- end networks for early warning. These networks use seismometers, which measure ground motion, or seismometers combined with global- positioning satellite data. Each installation in a network can cost between $20,000 and $30,000. Not every country facing a high risk of powerful earthquakes can afford such systems.

Smart phones, on the other hand, are ubiquitous and are becoming more so. They tend to include GPS receivers as well as accelerometers to sense motion. More than 1 billion are in pockets and purses around the world, with the number expected to rise to nearly 6 billion by 2020.

The goal is to explore the potential of smart-phone earthquake early-warning networks with an eye toward deploying them in in countries that may not be able to afford science-grade monitoring stations. Of primary concern are countries located near boundaries between shifting plates of Earth's crust, especially subduction zones, where one plate slides beneath another plate. These zones generate the planet's most powerful quakes.

The potential is intriguing enough to have prompted the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide the team with a $500,000 grant for a demonstration project in Chile, which frequently is rocked by strong earthquakes. It also has endured the most powerful earthquake on record, a magnitude 9.5 quake that struck just south of the coastal city of Concepcion in 1960.

The demonstration project will employ 200 to 250 smart phone- based sensors in various Chilean buildings. These will operate alongside a science-grade network the country also is installing. …

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