Smartphones could be future of early earthquake warnings

MENLO PARK, Calif. (KTVU) - They say there's power in numbers, especially in numbers of smartphones.

New research shows that's specifically true for the GPS function that helps us know exactly where we are. That power may soon provide early warning of earthquake shaking.

Scientists say the concept is surprisingly straightforward, exploiting the one thing cellphone GPS does extremely well which is to know exactly how far it's moved.

"We can use phones to detect that the ground has moved thus the earthquake has happened where it is and how big it is," said Sarah Minson, USGS geophysicist, "and use that information to send a warning to people who haven't felt shaking yet."

Minson works at USGS Menlo Park and discovered that in the big Japan quake four years ago crowdsourcing just 5,000 cellphones, would have provided early warning of the shaking and tsunami.

A simulation showed it would have worked almost as well as a network of high-tech seismometers but a lot cheaper.

Minson asked, "wouldn't you like to know before you felt any shaking that an earthquake was happening and you were about to feel shaking but it's only moderate not the big one and you don't have to worry?"

Scientists are about to try this in real time in quake prone Chile.

You'd only need to download an app, and scientists say larger earthquakes would trigger rapid warning of shaking, electronic signals far out-racing the spreading shaking.

There is one roadblock now located inside your phone's operating system, which on purpose reduces GPS precision to avoid confusing you with too much detailed information.

Minson said she hopes Apple and Google executives will see this story on KTVU and make appropriate updates to their operating systems so this cellphone early warning system could become a reality.