Written by Alan Buis
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Pasadena, CA – Smartphones and other personal electronic devices could, in regions where they are in widespread use, function as early warning systems for large earthquakes, according to newly reported research.
This technology could serve regions of the world that cannot afford higher quality, but more expensive, conventional earthquake early warning systems, or could contribute to those systems.
The study, led by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), found that the sensors in smartphones and similar devices could be used to build earthquake warning systems.
Despite being less accurate than scientific-grade equipment, the GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers in a smartphone can detect the permanent ground movement (displacement) caused by fault motion in a large earthquake.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, was a participant in the study, published April 10th in the new journal Science Advances from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Using crowdsourced observations from participating users’ smartphones, scientists could detect and analyze earthquakes, and transmit customized earthquake warnings back to them and other users. “Crowdsourced alerting means that the community will benefit by data generated by the community,” said Sarah Minson, USGS geophysicist and lead author of the study. Minson was a post-doctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena while working on this study.
Earthquake early warning systems detect the start of an earthquake and rapidly transmit warnings to people and automated systems before they experience shaking at their location. While much of the world’s population is susceptible to damaging earthquakes, the systems are currently operating in only a few regions around the globe, including Japan and Mexico.
“Most of the world does not receive earthquake warnings mainly due to the cost of building the necessary scientific monitoring networks,” said USGS geophysicist and project lead Benjamin Brooks.
Researchers tested the feasibility of crowdsourced earthquake early warning systems with a simulation of a hypothetical magnitude 7 quake, and with real data from the 2011 magnitude 9 Tohoku-oki, Japan, earthquake. The results show that crowdsourced warning systems could be achieved with only a tiny percentage of people in a given area contributing information from their smartphones.
For example, if phones from fewer than 5,000 people in a large metropolitan area responded, the earthquake could be detected and analyzed fast enough to issue a warning to areas farther away before the onset of strong shaking. “The speed of an electronic warning travels faster than the earthquake shaking does,” explained Craig Glennie, a report author and professor at the University of Houston in Texas.
Scientific-grade EEW, such as the USGS’s ShakeAlert system that is currently being implemented on the U.S. West Coast, will be able to help minimize the impact of earthquakes over a wide range of magnitudes. However, in many parts of the world where there are insufficient resources to build and maintain scientific networks, but consumer electronics are increasingly common, crowdsourced EEW has significant potential.
“The U.S. earthquake early warning system is being built on our high-quality scientific earthquake networks, but crowdsourced approaches can augment our system and have real potential to make warnings possible in places that don’t have high-quality networks,” said Douglas Given, USGS coordinator of the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has already agreed to fund a pilot project, in collaboration with the Chilean Centro Sismologico Nacional, to test a pilot hybrid earthquake warning system using both stand-alone smartphone sensors and scientific-grade sensors along the Chilean coast.
“Crowdsourced data are less precise, but for larger earthquakes that cause large shifts in the ground surface, they contain enough information to detect that an earthquake has occurred, information necessary for early warning,” said study co-author Susan Owen of JPL.
“Thirty years ago, it took months to assemble a crude picture of the deformations from an earthquake. This new technology promises to provide a near-instantaneous picture with much greater resolution,” said Thomas Heaton, a coauthor of the study and professor of engineering seismology at Caltech.
This research was a collaboration among scientists from the USGS, Caltech, the University of Houston, JPL and Carnegie Mellon University-Silicon Valley, and included support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
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