Many years ago, on my first trip to South America, the family I was staying with required all guests and residents of the home to sleep with two stemmed wine glasses right next to each other, actually touching, by every bed. If the glasses started making noise at night, it was your quick notice of an earthquake. This is better than that!
The Berkeley Seismological Laboratory has been a leading the way in earthquake early warning systems. These networks of sensors and communication devices are designed to give train operators, nuclear power plants, surgeons, and seismophobic citizens a few precious seconds—or even minutes—lead-time to get ready for the coming seismic waves.
A simulated ShakeAlert response to the Loma Prieta earthquake shows, with jarring audio, how the “s-waves” take a full 27 seconds to radiate from the epicenter in Santa Cruz country to the UC Berkeley campus. With proper warning, those are 27 seconds in which faculty could duck beneath desks, chemistry students could put down their flasks, and campus emergency responders could prepare themselves.
But by harnessing the accelerometers and GPS devices that come in store-bought smartphones, seismologists have the potential to vastly expand these emergency response networks.
“There are many countries, especially in the developing world, that don’t have the resources and don’t expect to have the resources to develop a traditional seismic networks,” Allen told us over the phone. “But there is a rapidly expanding smartphone and cell phone user base the world over.”
Even so, don’t expect to find MyShake in the iTunes store anytime soon. According to Allen, while they have successfully programmed the phones to predictably measure earthquakes exceeding 5.0 magnitude, they have yet to fine tune “the backend”—that is, the server that can collect all the real-data, access whether a quake is actually taking place, calculate its magnitude, and then send a timely warning to all registered parties.
The rub, of course, is that in order to “teach” the server to accurately analyze and respond to earthquakes, you need to show it what earthquake data looks like.