The race to develop earthquake warning tech
Sep 20, 2023

The race to develop earthquake warning tech

Companies are competing to create better tech for systems that can save lives during seismic events. This type of investment used to be funded only by governments, but that’s changing.

Early earthquake detection technology is still in its early days. Here on the West Coast, those of us who lived through the deadly Los Angeles quake of 1994 or the one that hit the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 had no warning.

But three decades later, smartphone apps can notify us seconds or even minutes beforehand. In California, Oregon and Washington, the MyShake app is among the best-known. Developed at the University of California, Berkeley, the app sends a warning to mobile phones based on data from ground-motion sensors.

Until recently, most investment in earthquake warning and detection came from governments. But as the BBC’s Will Bain reports, now the private sector wants in.

Big Tech firms like Google have been leading the way in earthquake detection and alerts. The company has developed a free Android Earthquake Alerts System, which is available in more than 20 countries. 

It works, Google says, by having tiny accelerometers built into Android phones that can sense earthquakes, creating a network of mini-seismometers. When there’s an earthquake, all the phones get an alert that says drop, cover and hold on. 

But there are questions about how effective it was during the earthquake in Turkey in February. Fifty thousand people lost their lives. Micah Berman, Google’s product manager for the system, said millions of people did get an alert.

But the BBC has found no evidence that the warning was widely received — hundreds of Android phone users in three Turkish cities who were questioned by journalists said they didn’t get one.

Harold Tobin, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Washington and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, said the technology is still very new.

“They’re at the cutting edge of what’s possible. I feel that if you are delivering an essential sort of life safety, public safety piece of information, then you have a responsibility to be transparent about how it works and how well it works.”

But Google hasn’t released that information.

In New Zealand, researchers are taking a different approach. They’re experimenting by adding seismic sensors to underground fiber-optic broadband cables.

John Townend, a professor of geophysics at Victoria University of Wellington, said the cables mostly follow the major state highway.

“Those cables are subjected to the vibrations that are traveling through the ground, and by shaking the cable and straining it, sort of extension and compression, it produces a pulse that we can measure using a laser.”

That way, they can “very quickly distinguish something slow-moving like a car from something of seismological interest, like a seismic wave,” he said.

The newest arrival to the earthquake tech race is artificial intelligence. Israeli firm SeismicAI detects an earthquake’s primary waves, then sends out an alert to shut down electricity, close down gas valves and alert people to take cover.

“We cannot stop a pipe from bursting, but we can make sure that there are no dangerous chemicals inside the pipe,” said Benny Sasson, CEO of SeismicAI.

He said in the United States, SeismicAI has partnered with both governments and private companies. It’s working with the Oklahoma Geological Survey to provide a public alert and is also helping the oil and gas industry. The hope is that if companies work more closely together and with national governments to detect earthquakes and warn people, ultimately they could save more lives.

Screenshots of how Google’s earthquake alerts appear on some Android phones. (Courtesy Google)

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