Can smartphones affixed to buildings detect earthquakes?

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Using smartphone networks, scientists are testing new low-cost environment friendly earthquake early warning system for areas with massive populations and restricted sources.

By Meghomita Das, Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, McGill University, Montreal, Canada (@meghomita)

Citation: Das, M., 2021, Can smartphones affixed to buildings detect earthquakes?, Temblor,

Damaging earthquakes can strike at any time, forsaking a path of devastation. Recovery from such occasions can take a number of years. Unfortunately, scientists can’t forecast the precise time an earthquake will strike. But intensive analysis within the discipline of earthquake early warning methods is ongoing. Such methods can present seconds of warning, which might save lives and stop folks from overwhelming emergency administration methods.

The 2009 Cinchona earthquake, that struck near the capital metropolis of San Jose, brought about 34 fatalities and collapsed homes throughout Costa Rica. Credit: Capt Diana Parzik, US Army, by way of Wikipedia, CC-Public Domain Mark 1.0


Earthquake early warning methods work by having a densely distributed community of seismic stations able to quickly detecting an earthquake, and by sending alerts that warn of shaking to the inhabitants. A major hurdle to designing and implementing such methods is the excessive price of putting in a number of, scientific-grade seismic stations throughout earthquake-prone areas. For nations like India or Mexico, which have restricted sources and excessive inhabitants densities, these costly networks are usually not possible.

In a current examine printed in AGU Advances, a workforce of scientists explored whether or not a low-cost, strong and operational earthquake early warning system — constructed round comparatively low-cost smartphones as an alternative of seismic stations — would possibly turn out to be a actuality within the close to future in Costa Rica, a rustic that recurrently experiences high-magnitude earthquakes. During a six-month testing interval, this community, known as Alerta Sismica Temprana Utilizando Telefonos Inteligentes (ASTUTI), a collaborative effort between the U.S. Geological Survey and the Universidad Nacional, Costa Rica, detected and despatched alerts for 5 earthquakes that produced important shaking in San Jose, Costa Rica’s densely populated capital metropolis.

Smartphones and earthquakes

Smartphones come packaged with GPS location providers, fixed communication by way of cell networks, and a tool known as an accelerometer that helps your cellphone’s display screen rotate as you progress it round. The accelerometer may file any shaking your cellphone might expertise. “Essentially, your cellphone prices perhaps $100 and has all of the three elements which are there in a scientific grade seismic station, which prices 1000’s of {dollars},” says Marino Protti, a examine co-author and a seismologist on the Observatorio Vulcanologico y Sismologico de Costa Rica (Universidad Nacional).

To arrange the ASTUTI community, the workforce deployed 82 Android smartphones, encased in protecting bins, all through Costa Rica, at an annual price of $20,000 USD. They put in these smartphones inside buildings, on both the partitions or flooring of the bottom story. The telephones are plugged in to AC energy provides.

The accelerometers stream information by way of mobile networks in actual time to the cloud, says Protti. A cloud-based server receives alerts from all stations. So, when an earthquake strikes and two websites detect sturdy floor movement, an alert goes out to folks in San Jose, offering between 10 and 30 seconds of warning earlier than the earthquake’s waves arrive, he explains.

San Jose Skyline. Credit: Jpczcaya, via Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-4.0
San Jose Skyline. Credit: Jpczcaya, by way of Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-4.0


San Jose’s location relative to the Middle America Trench — the place the Cocos Plate dives beneath the Caribbean Plate — is ideal to check the efficacy of this community as a result of town is within the Goldilocks place. It’s far sufficient from the ditch such that issuing a well timed alert is possible, however shut sufficient such that the inhabitants will really feel shaking. The ASTUTI community additionally issued alerts as quickly as occasions have been detected, fairly than both ready for an earthquake to develop bigger or making an attempt to outline its traits. This alternative gave folks extra time to guard themselves.

Did ASTUTI really feel it?

During its six months of operation, a bunch of individuals chosen to obtain alerts by way of cellphone have been notified of 5 occasions that ASTUTI detected, with magnitudes ranging between 4.8 and 5.3. Thirteen earthquakes struck Costa Rica in that point, however the different eight earthquakes didn’t produce important shaking to warrant an alert. For two of the 5 detected occasions, ASTUTI despatched out alerts on the earliest potential time — when the primary wave from the earthquake, additionally known as the P-wave — was detected by smartphones. This offered folks with sufficient time to take protecting motion. Moreover, every of the 5 detected occasions have been accompanied by a “Did You Feel It” report by the U.S. Geological Survey. This citizen science challenge collects “felt reviews” from individuals who felt shaking (or didn’t) throughout earthquakes worldwide. In different phrases, the earthquakes that shook folks sufficient to file a report have been detected by the ASTUTI community.

One of the ASTUTI earthquake early warning stations. Image on the left shows the encased smartphone, and image on the right shows the software interface that records data from the station. Credit: Brooks et al., 2021, CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
One of the ASTUTI earthquake early warning stations. Image on the left exhibits the encased smartphone, and picture on the precise exhibits the software program interface that information information from the station. Credit: Brooks et al., 2021, CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0


With current developments in earthquake early warning, there’s a potential for creating a community consisting of high-priced high-end units complemented by a bigger variety of low-cost units able to detecting floor movement, says Raj Prasanna, a telecommunications and electronics engineer and senior lecturer at Massey University-New Zealand who was not concerned with this examine. “Together, they will turn out to be an inexpensive warning community, with acceptable ranges of reliability,” he says.

In the subsequent part of growth, the workforce plans to create a hybrid system by integrating this smartphone-enabled community with Costa Rica’s current scientific-grade seismic community, which is able to enhance the accuracy and scale back time of detection of the earthquake early warning system.

What the general public needs

Setting up an earthquake early warning system that successfully prompts the general public to get to security is difficult, says Sarah Minson of the USGS, a co-author of the brand new examine. “How do we discover out what folks need; how do we discover out if they’re having fun with the system?” she asks. Because earthquake early warning methods are comparatively new, Minson says, folks might not know what they need or want. Plus, each nation’s wants are completely different. People’s responses to the identical alerts fluctuate relying upon how that particular society culturally reacts to pure hazards.

To that finish, the workforce plans to develop a smartphone-based software. In the long run, they are going to work with the National Commission for Risk Prevention and Emergency Management in Costa Rica to measure how the Costa Rican inhabitants perceives earthquake early warning. The purpose, says Protti, is to create a extra coordinated response plan for earthquakes in Costa Rica. By coupling efficient messaging with earthquake early warning, the general public may have essential seconds to take actions that may shield their lives.


Brooks, B. A., Protti, M., Ericksen, T., Bunn, J., Vega, F., Cochran, E. S., … & Glennie, C. L. (2021). Robust earthquake early warning at a fraction of the price: ASTUTI Costa Rica. AGU Advances, 2(3), e2021AV000407.

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