The GPS sensors built into most smartphones are sensitive enough to detect the early signals of earthquakes magnitude 7 and stronger, says new research. And our smartphones, while not as precise a measurement tool as scientific devices, could serve as crowdsourced early warning tools for major seismic events.
The data your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy collects could be used to give communities near a quake's epicenter a few seconds' notice they're about to be hit with a large quake. And those few seconds could save many lives.
"The GPS on a smartphone is shockingly good," study leader Sarah Minson, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, told the Los Angeles Times. "If you take your phone and move it six inches to the right, it knows with surprising accuracy that it moved six inches to the right — and that is exactly what we want to know when studying earthquakes."
From the Los Angeles Times coverage:
Minson acknowledges that the system may not be quite as accurate in the real world as it appears to be on paper. Real-world tests will help her find out. Those will come next year, when she and her colleagues will test their early-warning system in Chile with a few hundred smartphones.
"Hopefully," she said, "this is going to be a good learning experience for us."
Minson said the main benefit of crowd-sourcing earthquake detection is that it's inexpensive, because the phones have already been paid for. All the experts would have to do is write an app to connect them, and then find a central computer somewhere to collect the data.
"The point of this paper is that the type of measurements that are being made by smartphones have the potential to be useful in earthquakes," Caltech geophysics professor and study coauthor Thomas Heaton told the paper. "That's quite a big step from actually making it useful in earthquakes."