New technology can give earthquake warnings on cell phones

If detected, the system gives up to a minute and a half of forewarning before the seismic waves occur. It has saved many lives. — Photo by Jonas Leupe on Unsplash

CHICO: A 5.1 magnitude earthquake struck 12 miles (19.3km) from San Jose, California at 11:42am on Tuesday (Oct 25).

It wasn't a large quake, but enough to get people talking. There is now new technology available which can detect and give earthquake warnings.

At Chico State, in the new science building, there is a device called a Heliquarter which is a computer monitor that tracks and displays seismic data. On Thursday, the monitor was tracking data in Alaska.

According to Chico State Instructional and Research Support Coordinator Bill Koperwhats, who works in the geology department, there was a seismograph "back in the day" in the basement of the old physical science building.

"It was pretty cool," Koperwhats said. "Students would see it on tours. But the technology was really old, dating back to the 1980s or 1990s." Koperwhats said when he arrived at Chico State in 2007, the machine stopped working. He removed it and replaced it with a kiosk, a big monitor hooked up to a computer, which can pull up live data from seismic stations all over the world.

"Kids can walk through and see where the data is being recorded from," Koperwhats said.

Koperwhats said that Robert Allen, a professor at UC Berkeley, developed an app called MyShake. This app can pull seismic network data and uses a sensor in cellphones to detect shaking and earthquakes. It was released in 2019. It doesn't predict earthquakes, but 50 seconds to a minute before an earthquake, it can warn the owner of the cellphone what is coming based on the seismic data.

"It functions in California, Washington and Oregon," Koperwhats said. "It gives a warning before the seismic energy reaches where you are, and gives you a few seconds to duck, cover and prepare." Koperwhats said Mexico City has had an early warning system for close to a decade.

"Mexico City's earthquakes occur on the coast," he said. "If detected, the system gives up to a minute and a half of forewarning before the seismic waves occur. It has saved many lives." Koperwhats said when an earthquake is detected, seismic energy can run 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) per second. If you are located 100 km (62 miles) from the epicenter, you have 10 seconds before the shock wave hits you and you get an alert on your phone from MyShake. MyShake is available for both Androids and iPhones.

The Gateway Science Museum currently has an exhibit called "Earthquakes and Epidemics." There is a kiosk there which shows live seismic data.

In addition to the MyShake app, the app QuakeAlertUSA by Early Warning Labs issues alerts, even for lower magnitude quakes, to those who download them.

Early Warning Labs said Tuesday it sent alerts to 928 users on Android and iOS devices via the QuakeAlertUSA app. Those users, the company said, were forecast to experience shaking of a level 3 on the Modified Mercali Intensity scale, which measures an earthquake's intensity.

Early Warning Labs said that under U.S. Geological Survey rules, to receive an early warning, the earthquake must be over magnitude 4.5 and the forecasted intensity over MMI 3. – Chico Enterprise-Record/Tribune News Service

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