GPS sensors in smartphones could help predict earthquakes

Smartphones could be used to alert people to imminent earthquake activity before it occurs, a new study has shown.

Research by the US Geological Survey showed that electronic devices could function as early warning systems for large earthquakes as smartphones equipped with GPS sensors are capable of detecting ground movement. The technology could be used in the world’s most remote areas.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, used crowdsourced observations from users’ smartphones to detect and analyse earthquakes and then transmit warnings back to the user.

Sarah Minson, USGS geophysicist and lead author of the study, said: “Crowdsourced alerting means that the community will benefit from data generated by the community.”

The researchers used a simulation of a magnitude seven earthquake and data from the 2011 magnitude nine earthquake that hit Japan. The findings showed a small percentage of people sharing data from their phones could be enough to detect an earthquake.

For example, if phones from fewer than 5,000 people in a large metropolitan area submitted data, the earthquake could be detected and analysed fast enough to issue a warning to areas at risk before the onset of strong shaking. “The speed of an electronic warning travels faster than the earthquake shaking does,” said Craig Glennie, a study author from the University of Houston.

However, the phone-based system won’t replace the existing early warning technology, such as ShakeAlert that is currently being implemented on the west coast of the US, as the accuracy of more advanced systems is much higher.

The authors found that crowdsourced data gathered on smartphones could only detect earthquakes of magnitude seven or more, leaving smaller yet potentially still damaging earthquakes undetected.

“Crowdsourced data is 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, the information necessary for early warning,” said study co-author Susan Owen of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

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