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The GPS sensor in smartphones could help detect earthquakes

Leeanna McLean
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, April 15, 2015, 3:03 PM - Imagine getting a notification from your smartphone warning you of a large earthquake. 

Scientists say GPS sensors already built into smartphones and other personal electronic devices could be used to build early warning systems for earthquakes.

The technology can be applied in regions where smartphones are in widespread use. The study includes researchers from U.S. Geological Survey, NASA, California Institute of Technology, the University of Houston and Carnegie Mellon University. 

Although the data may be less accurate than state-of-the-art scientific equipment, scientists say the GPS in a smartphone can detect the ground movement caused by fault motion in a large earthquake, thus providing an alert to the phone.

Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) systems are currently operating in only a few regions including Japan and Mexico. This low-cost warning system can be used in parts of the world that are more susceptible to earthquakes and cannot afford such costly technology. 

Through crowdsourced data, earthquakes could be detected and analyzed, and customized warnings could be transmitted back to users. 

"The speed of an electronic warning travels faster than the earthquake shaking does," says Craig Glennie, a report author and professor at the University of Houston in a press release. 

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The technology would only work to issue earthquake warnings of magnitude 7.0 or higher, researchers say. 

Scientists tested the technology with a simulation of a hypothetical magnitude 7.0 earthquake, using real data from the devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit parts of Japan in 2011. Surprisingly, results indicated that data is only needed from a small percentage of people in a large metropolitan area in order for information to be detected and analyzed fast enough to issue a early warning.

"Crowdsourcing is an important phenomenon that has only begun to be used across the sciences and must be considered seriously," the study says.

Given the fact that there is long repeat times between earthquakes and tsunmais and there are limited budgets to take preventative measures, researchers say crowdsourcing may play a vital role in building, maintaining and operating warning systems. 

SOURCE: Science Advances research article | U.S. Geological Survey

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