Help Detect Earthquakes With a Seismic App

Help Detect Earthquakes With a Seismic App

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With Old Moore predicting seismic activity for Ireland in 2017, this may interest you.

Every smartphone owner on the planet can work together to help detect an earthquake and warn others. Scientists are releasing a free Android app that taps a smartphone’s ability to record ground shaking from an earthquake. This is with the goal of creating a worldwide seismic detection network that could eventually warn users of impending jolts from nearby quakes.

The app, called MyShake, has just been released on the Google Play Store and runs in the background with little power, so that a phone’s onboard accelerometers can record local shaking any time of the day or night. Once enough people are using it and the bugs are worked out, UC Berkeley seismologists plan to use the data to warn people miles from ground zero that shaking is rumbling their way. An iPhone app is also planned.

The algorithm in the mobile app can distinguish earthquake shaking from normal vibrations, such as walking, dancing or dropping the phone. In simulated tests, the algorithm successfully distinguished quakes from non-quakes 93 percent of the time. When the app determines that the vibration is from a quake, it briefly activates the phone’s GPS to obtain the phone’s position and push a short packet of information out through a data or wifi connection.

“MyShake cannot replace traditional seismic networks, but we think MyShake can make earthquake early warning faster and more accurate in areas that have a traditional seismic network, and can provide life-saving early warning in countries that have no seismic network,” said Richard Allen, the leader of the app project. The lab operates a sensitive but widely spaced network of seismic sensors buried in vaults around Northern California.

A crowdsourced seismic network may be the only option today for many earthquake-prone developing countries, such as Nepal or Peru, that have a sparse or no ground-based seismic network or early warning system, but do have millions of smartphone users.

It is hoped that this is cutting-edge research that will transform seismology. The stations for traditional seismology are not that dense, especially in some regions around the world, but using smart phones with low-cost sensors will provide a really good, dense network in the future.

Smartphones can easily measure movement caused by a quake because they have three built-in accelerometers designed to sense the orientation of the phone for display or gaming. While constantly improving in sensitivity for the benefit of gamers, however, smartphone accelerometers are far less sensitive than in-ground seismometers. But they are sensitive enough to record earthquakes above a magnitude 5 – the ones that do damage – within 10 kilometres. And what these accelerometers lack in sensitivity, they make up for in ubiquity. There are an estimated 1 billion smartphones worldwide.

“Currently, we have a network of 400 seismic stations in California, one of the densest in the world,” Allen said. “Even if we get only a small fraction of the state’s 16 million mobile phones participating in our program, that would be a many-orders-of-magnitude increase in the amount of data we can gather.”

Allen hopes that thousands of people will download and install the app so that he and his colleagues can give MyShake a good test. If successful, he anticipates an updated app that provides early warning within a year.

Allen’s long-term goal is to make earthquake detection so valuable that it becomes embedded in the mobile phone operating system, so that everyone becomes part of the network. Once the app has proven reliable, earthquake detection could trigger an alert to mobile phone users outside ground zero, providing users with a countdown until shaking arrives.

They need at least 300 smartphones within a 110-kilometre-by-110-kilometre area in order to have a reasonable estimate of the location, magnitude and origin time of an earthquake. The denser the network, the earlier you can detect the earthquake. With a dense enough network, detection, analysis and warning can take less than a second.

“We want to make this a killer app, where you put it on your phone and allow us use your accelerometer, and we will deliver earthquake early warning,” Allen said.

Last year, Old Moore predicted that there would be a very mild earthquake in Ireland. And in fact, vibrations linked to the devastating earthquake in Italy, in which at least 73 people died, were felt in Ireland.

So perhaps it might be a good idea to download this app, and be the first to know when the next series of shakes is coming!

 

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