From temblor : “Can smartphones affixed to buildings detect earthquakes?”


From temblor

September 1, 2021
By Meghomita Das, Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, McGill University (CA).

Damaging earthquakes can strike at any time, leaving behind a trail of devastation. Recovery from such events can take several years. Unfortunately, scientists cannot forecast the exact time an earthquake will strike. But extensive research in the field of earthquake early warning systems is ongoing. Such systems can provide seconds of warning, which could save lives and prevent people from overwhelming emergency management systems.

The 2009 Cinchona earthquake, that struck close to the capital city of San Jose, caused 34 fatalities and collapsed houses across Costa Rica. Credit: Capt Diana Parzik, US Army, via Wikipedia, CC-Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Earthquake early warning systems work by having a densely distributed network of seismic stations capable of rapidly detecting an earthquake, and by sending alerts that warn of shaking to the population. A significant hurdle to designing and implementing such systems is the high cost of installing multiple, scientific-grade seismic stations across earthquake-prone regions. For countries like India or Mexico, which have limited resources and high population densities, these expensive networks are not feasible.

In a recent study published in AGU Advances, a team of scientists explored whether a low-cost, robust and operational earthquake early warning system — built around comparatively cheap smartphones instead of seismic stations — might become a reality in the near future in Costa Rica, a country that regularly experiences high-magnitude earthquakes. During a six-month testing period, this network, called Alerta Sismica Temprana Utilizando Telefonos Inteligentes (ASTUTI), a collaborative effort between The Geological Survey (US) and the National University of Costa Rica [Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica] (CR), detected and sent alerts for five earthquakes that produced significant shaking in San Jose, Costa Rica’s densely populated capital city.

Smartphones and earthquakes

Smartphones come packaged with GPS location services-constant communication via cell networks-and a device called an accelerometer that helps your phone’s screen rotate as you move it around. The accelerometer can also record any shaking your phone may experience. “Essentially, your phone costs maybe $100 and has all the three components that are there in a scientific grade seismic station, which costs thousands of dollars,” says Marino Protti, a study co-author and a seismologist at the Observatorio Vulcanologico y Sismologico de Costa Rica (Universidad Nacional).

To set up the ASTUTI network, the team deployed 82 Android smartphones, encased in protective boxes, throughout Costa Rica, at an annual cost of $20,000 USD. They installed these smartphones inside buildings, on either the walls or floors of the ground story. The phones are plugged in to AC power supplies.

The accelerometers stream data via cellular networks in real time to the cloud, says Protti. A cloud-based server receives signals from all stations. So, when an earthquake strikes and four sites detect strong ground motion, an alert goes out to people in San Jose, providing between 10 and 30 seconds of warning before the earthquake’s waves arrive, he explains.

San Jose’s location relative to the Middle America Trench — where the Cocos Plate dives beneath the Caribbean Plate — is perfect to test the efficacy of this network because the city is in the Goldilocks position. It’s far enough from the trench such that issuing a timely alert is feasible, but close enough such that the population will feel shaking. The ASTUTI network also issued alerts as soon as events were detected, rather than either waiting for an earthquake to grow larger or trying to define its characteristics. This choice gave people more time to protect themselves.

Did ASTUTI feel it?

During its six months of operation, a group of people selected to receive alerts via phone were notified of five events that ASTUTI detected, with magnitudes ranging between 4.8 and 5.3. Thirteen earthquakes struck Costa Rica in that time, but the other eight earthquakes did not produce significant shaking to warrant an alert. For two of the five detected events, ASTUTI sent out alerts at the earliest possible time — when the first wave from the earthquake, also called the P-wave — was detected by smartphones. This provided people with enough time to take protective action. Moreover, each of the five detected events were accompanied by a “Did You Feel It” report by the U.S. Geological Survey. This citizen science project collects “felt reports” from people who felt shaking (or didn’t) during earthquakes worldwide. In other words, the earthquakes that shook people enough to file a report were detected by the ASTUTI network.

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.

With recent advancements in earthquake early warning, there is a potential for developing a network consisting of expensive high-end devices complemented by a larger number of low-cost devices capable of detecting ground motion, says Raj Prasanna, a telecommunications and electronics engineer and senior lecturer at Massey University-New Zealand [Te Kunenga Ki Pūrehuroa](NZ) who was not involved with this study. “Together, they can become an affordable warning network, with acceptable levels of reliability,” he says.

In the next phase of development, the team plans to create a hybrid system by integrating this smartphone-enabled network with Costa Rica’s existing scientific-grade seismic network, which will improve the accuracy and reduce time of detection of the earthquake early warning system.

What the public wants

Setting up an earthquake early warning system that effectively prompts the public to get to safety is challenging, says Sarah Minson of the USGS, a co-author of the new study. “How do we find out what people want; how do we find out if they are enjoying the system?” she asks. Because earthquake early warning systems are relatively new and people haven’t interacted with them, Minson says, they may not have a personal feel for what works for them. Plus, every country’s needs are different. People’s responses to the same alerts vary depending upon how that specific society culturally reacts to natural hazards.

To that end, the team plans to develop a smartphone-based application. In the future, they will work with the National Commission for Risk Prevention and Emergency Management in Costa Rica to measure how the Costa Rican population perceives earthquake early warning. The goal, says Protti, is to create a more coordinated response plan for earthquakes in Costa Rica. By coupling effective messaging with earthquake early warning, the public will have crucial seconds to take actions that can protect 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 cost: ASTUTI Costa Rica. AGU Advances, 2(3), e2021AV000407.

See the full article here .


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Earthquake Alert


Earthquake Alert

Earthquake Network project Earthquake Network is a research project which aims at developing and maintaining a crowdsourced smartphone-based earthquake warning system at a global level. Smartphones made available by the population are used to detect the earthquake waves using the on-board accelerometers. When an earthquake is detected, an earthquake warning is issued in order to alert the population not yet reached by the damaging waves of the earthquake.

The project started on January 1, 2013 with the release of the homonymous Android application Earthquake Network. The author of the research project and developer of the smartphone application is Francesco Finazzi of the University of Bergamo, Italy.

Get the app in the Google Play store.

Smartphone network spatial distribution (green and red dots) on December 4, 2015

Meet The Quake-Catcher Network

QCN bloc

Quake-Catcher Network

The Quake-Catcher Network is a collaborative initiative for developing the world’s largest, low-cost strong-motion seismic network by utilizing sensors in and attached to internet-connected computers. With your help, the Quake-Catcher Network can provide better understanding of earthquakes, give early warning to schools, emergency response systems, and others. The Quake-Catcher Network also provides educational software designed to help teach about earthquakes and earthquake hazards.

After almost eight years at Stanford, and a year at CalTech, the QCN project is moving to the University of Southern California Dept. of Earth Sciences. QCN will be sponsored by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) and the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC).

The Quake-Catcher Network is a distributed computing network that links volunteer hosted computers into a real-time motion sensing network. QCN is one of many scientific computing projects that runs on the world-renowned distributed computing platform Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC).

The volunteer computers monitor vibrational sensors called MEMS accelerometers, and digitally transmit “triggers” to QCN’s servers whenever strong new motions are observed. QCN’s servers sift through these signals, and determine which ones represent earthquakes, and which ones represent cultural noise (like doors slamming, or trucks driving by).

There are two categories of sensors used by QCN: 1) internal mobile device sensors, and 2) external USB sensors.

Mobile Devices: MEMS sensors are often included in laptops, games, cell phones, and other electronic devices for hardware protection, navigation, and game control. When these devices are still and connected to QCN, QCN software monitors the internal accelerometer for strong new shaking. Unfortunately, these devices are rarely secured to the floor, so they may bounce around when a large earthquake occurs. While this is less than ideal for characterizing the regional ground shaking, many such sensors can still provide useful information about earthquake locations and magnitudes.

USB Sensors: MEMS sensors can be mounted to the floor and connected to a desktop computer via a USB cable. These sensors have several advantages over mobile device sensors. 1) By mounting them to the floor, they measure more reliable shaking than mobile devices. 2) These sensors typically have lower noise and better resolution of 3D motion. 3) Desktops are often left on and do not move. 4) The USB sensor is physically removed from the game, phone, or laptop, so human interaction with the device doesn’t reduce the sensors’ performance. 5) USB sensors can be aligned to North, so we know what direction the horizontal “X” and “Y” axes correspond to.

If you are a science teacher at a K-12 school, please apply for a free USB sensor and accompanying QCN software. QCN has been able to purchase sensors to donate to schools in need. If you are interested in donating to the program or requesting a sensor, click here.

BOINC is a leader in the field(s) of Distributed Computing, Grid Computing and Citizen Cyberscience.BOINC is more properly the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, developed at UC Berkeley.

Earthquake safety is a responsibility shared by billions worldwide. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) provides software so that individuals can join together to improve earthquake monitoring, earthquake awareness, and the science of earthquakes. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) links existing networked laptops and desktops in hopes to form the worlds largest strong-motion seismic network.

Below, the QCN Quake Catcher Network map
QCN Quake Catcher Network map

ShakeAlert: An Earthquake Early Warning System for the West Coast of the United States

The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) along with a coalition of State and university partners is developing and testing an earthquake early warning (EEW) system called ShakeAlert for the west coast of the United States. Long term funding must be secured before the system can begin sending general public notifications, however, some limited pilot projects are active and more are being developed. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018.

Watch a video describing how ShakeAlert works in English or Spanish.

The primary project partners include:

United States Geological Survey
California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES)
California Geological Survey
California Institute of Technology
University of California Berkeley
University of Washington
University of Oregon
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

The Earthquake Threat

Earthquakes pose a national challenge because more than 143 million Americans live in areas of significant seismic risk across 39 states. Most of our Nation’s earthquake risk is concentrated on the West Coast of the United States. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated the average annualized loss from earthquakes, nationwide, to be $5.3 billion, with 77 percent of that figure ($4.1 billion) coming from California, Washington, and Oregon, and 66 percent ($3.5 billion) from California alone. In the next 30 years, California has a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake and the Pacific Northwest has a 10 percent chance of a magnitude 8 to 9 megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone.

Part of the Solution

Today, the technology exists to detect earthquakes, so quickly, that an alert can reach some areas before strong shaking arrives. The purpose of the ShakeAlert system is to identify and characterize an earthquake a few seconds after it begins, calculate the likely intensity of ground shaking that will result, and deliver warnings to people and infrastructure in harm’s way. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave arrives, bringing the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage.

Studies of earthquake early warning methods in California have shown that the warning time would range from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds. ShakeAlert can give enough time to slow trains and taxiing planes, to prevent cars from entering bridges and tunnels, to move away from dangerous machines or chemicals in work environments and to take cover under a desk, or to automatically shut down and isolate industrial systems. Taking such actions before shaking starts can reduce damage and casualties during an earthquake. It can also prevent cascading failures in the aftermath of an event. For example, isolating utilities before shaking starts can reduce the number of fire initiations.

System Goal

The USGS will issue public warnings of potentially damaging earthquakes and provide warning parameter data to government agencies and private users on a region-by-region basis, as soon as the ShakeAlert system, its products, and its parametric data meet minimum quality and reliability standards in those geographic regions. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018. Product availability will expand geographically via ANSS regional seismic networks, such that ShakeAlert products and warnings become available for all regions with dense seismic instrumentation.

Current Status

The West Coast ShakeAlert system is being developed by expanding and upgrading the infrastructure of regional seismic networks that are part of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS); the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) is made up of the Southern California Seismic Network, SCSN) and the Northern California Seismic System, NCSS and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN). This enables the USGS and ANSS to leverage their substantial investment in sensor networks, data telemetry systems, data processing centers, and software for earthquake monitoring activities residing in these network centers. The ShakeAlert system has been sending live alerts to “beta” users in California since January of 2012 and in the Pacific Northwest since February of 2015.

In February of 2016 the USGS, along with its partners, rolled-out the next-generation ShakeAlert early warning test system in California joined by Oregon and Washington in April 2017. This West Coast-wide “production prototype” has been designed for redundant, reliable operations. The system includes geographically distributed servers, and allows for automatic fail-over if connection is lost.

This next-generation system will not yet support public warnings but does allow selected early adopters to develop and deploy pilot implementations that take protective actions triggered by the ShakeAlert notifications in areas with sufficient sensor coverage.


The USGS will develop and operate the ShakeAlert system, and issue public notifications under collaborative authorities with FEMA, as part of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, as enacted by the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, 42 U.S.C. §§ 7704 SEC. 2.

For More Information

Robert de Groot, ShakeAlert National Coordinator for Communication, Education, and Outreach

Learn more about EEW Research

ShakeAlert Fact Sheet

ShakeAlert Implementation Plan



About Early Warning Labs, LLC

Early Warning Labs, LLC (EWL) is an Earthquake Early Warning technology developer and integrator located in Santa Monica, CA. EWL is partnered with industry leading GIS provider ESRI, Inc. and is collaborating with the US Government and university partners.

EWL is investing millions of dollars over the next 36 months to complete the final integration and delivery of Earthquake Early Warning to individual consumers, government entities, and commercial users.

EWL’s mission is to improve, expand, and lower the costs of the existing earthquake early warning systems.

EWL is developing a robust cloud server environment to handle low-cost mass distribution of these warnings. In addition, Early Warning Labs is researching and developing automated response standards and systems that allow public and private users to take pre-defined automated actions to protect lives and assets.

EWL has an existing beta R&D test system installed at one of the largest studios in Southern California. The goal of this system is to stress test EWL’s hardware, software, and alert signals while improving latency and reliability.

Earthquake Early Warning Introduction

The United States Geological Survey (USGS), in collaboration with state agencies, university partners, and private industry, is developing an earthquake early warning system (EEW) for the West Coast of the United States called ShakeAlert. The USGS Earthquake Hazards Program aims to mitigate earthquake losses in the United States. Citizens, first responders, and engineers rely on the USGS for accurate and timely information about where earthquakes occur, the ground shaking intensity in different locations, and the likelihood is of future significant ground shaking.

The ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System recently entered its first phase of operations. The USGS working in partnership with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) is now allowing for the testing of public alerting via apps, Wireless Emergency Alerts, and by other means throughout California.

ShakeAlert partners in Oregon and Washington are working with the USGS to test public alerting in those states sometime in 2020.

ShakeAlert has demonstrated the feasibility of earthquake early warning, from event detection to producing USGS issued ShakeAlerts ® and will continue to undergo testing and will improve over time. In particular, robust and reliable alert delivery pathways for automated actions are currently being developed and implemented by private industry partners for use in California, Oregon, and Washington.

Earthquake Early Warning Background

The objective of an earthquake early warning system is to rapidly detect the initiation of an earthquake, estimate the level of ground shaking intensity to be expected, and issue a warning before significant ground shaking starts. A network of seismic sensors detects the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, and the location and the magnitude of the earthquake is rapidly determined. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated. The system can provide warning before the S-wave arrives, which brings the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage. Warnings will be distributed to local and state public emergency response officials, critical infrastructure, private businesses, and the public. EEW systems have been successfully implemented in Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, and other nations with varying degrees of sophistication and coverage.

Earthquake early warning can provide enough time to:

Instruct students and employees to take a protective action such as Drop, Cover, and Hold On
Initiate mass notification procedures
Open fire-house doors and notify local first responders
Slow and stop trains and taxiing planes
Install measures to prevent/limit additional cars from going on bridges, entering tunnels, and being on freeway overpasses before the shaking starts
Move people away from dangerous machines or chemicals in work environments
Shut down gas lines, water treatment plants, or nuclear reactors
Automatically shut down and isolate industrial systems

However, earthquake warning notifications must be transmitted without requiring human review and response action must be automated, as the total warning times are short depending on geographic distance and varying soil densities from the epicenter.