Are Smartphones Smart Enough to Save Lives?

Research looks at how our personal devices could be used collectively to warn of major earthquakes.

Smartphones can do pretty much anything these days, so it should be no surprise that your phone could possibly be used to detect an earthquake.

That’s according to a study led by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey and published in the journal Science Advances. It found that the GPS sensors built into most smartphones can detect the vibrations from quakes of magnitude 7 and stronger.

Discovery News said that in theory, the system would be able to distinguish the everyday jiggles and jolts of a smartphone from actual earthquake vibrations.

The GPS warning system is deceptively simple: If the GPS receivers from just a few phones suddenly lurched in one direction, that’s probably not an earthquake. But if a few thousand phones all move at once, then the motion is likely from a sudden seismic jolt.

The study said that crowdsourcing smartphones to develop an earthquake early warning system would be doubly effective because the phones would be used to gather data as well as issue warnings to the public. Smartphones’ GPS sensors could provide up to several seconds of warning for quakes.

“A few seconds can be enormously helpful,” lead study author Sarah Minson, a geophysicist at the USGS in Menlo Park, Calif., told Discovery.

The system has been tested with computer modeling. Researchers plan to launch a pilot project in Chile, where big quakes occur once every year or so, sometime this year.

“In regions where resources cannot be allocated for scientific-grade [earthquake early warning] due to limited financial resources or less frequent occurrence of destructive earthquakes, crowdsourced [earthquake early warning] may be the best option,” the study said.

Researchers said the system could be especially helpful in large regions of central and south America, the Caribbean, the Pacific rim, and south Asia, which all have high seismic hazard but no early warning capabilities. Minson said:

“We have high hopes that this could make a huge impact, because the vast majority of the world has no form of early warning or even rapid response to an earthquake. What people do increasingly have are [smartphones].”

What do you think of using smartphones to detect earthquakes? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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