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EarthquakesEarthquake early warning? There’s an app for that

Published 6 December 2013

Researchers from the University of California have unveiled a smartphone app designed to provide users an early warning of approaching earthquakes. Based on the proximity of the user to the earthquake’s epicenter, the app will provide alerts of between a few seconds and one minute before a tremor hits.

Researchers from the University of California have unveiled a smartphone app designed to provide users an early warning of approaching earthquakes. The app, unveiled at the World Science Forum in Rio de Janeiro, is based on technology developed for an early warning system designed by researchers under Professor Richard Allen, director of the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.

Governor Jerry Brown of California signed a bill in September 2013 mandating the creation of an early warning system. Allen is a member of the group of scientists developing the system, along with a notification mechanism to warn California residents. 

Channel NewsAsia reports that based on the proximity of the user to the earthquake’s epicenter, the app will provide alerts of between a few seconds and one minute before a tremor hits. The early warning will give app users time to seek out secure shelter, cease industrial activity, and halt transportation, thus reducing the risk to public safety.

The app captures primary waves, or P waves, from the tremor, allowing it to send signals before secondary waves, capable of causing damage, arrives at the location. The app is supported by algorithms that use data from seismic monitors set up along regional networks. The algorithms detect the start of an earthquake, its strength, and direction.

There are many phones simultaneously doing this to enable the server to determine the site and magnitude of the quake to send people further away a warning. These warnings include (information on) how much time to the start of the tremor and also its intensity.” explained Allen. According to Agence France-Presse, the app relies on existing smartphone functions such as accelerometers and gyroscopes to determine movement, and GPS and Wi-Fi localization functions, in addition to a magnetometer to indicate direction. “All we need is a telephone at the epicenter of the quake which detects it and sends the information (saying) ‘I felt a jolt, I am in this place’ to a server,” explained Allen.

The app relies on the growing use of about sixteen million interconnected smartphones in California, and about one billion globally. The app, which could be ready next year, will be tested with several thousand users, and if success, will be available for free via a coded access.