Android Phones Will Now Automatically Receive California Earthquake Warnings

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

An onlooker views newly ruptured ground after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck in the area on July 6, 2019, near Ridgecrest, California.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Bay Area tech giant Google, working with a team of seismologists from UC Berkeley and the United States Geological Survey, unveiled a pair of new smartphone products this week, one which extends the reach of California’s earthquake early-warning system and another that expands quake detection capabilities to phones around the world.

Android phones in use in California will now automatically receive quake warnings from ShakeAlert, a system that uses a network of 700 seismometers installed across the state by USGS, UC Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology, and the Governor's Office of Emergency Services to quickly identify earthquakes. The system became active Tuesday.

Now, anyone with an Android phone will potentially gain a few extra moments to protect themselves from an imminent quake, says Richard Allen, the director of the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab, who worked with Google as a visiting researcher to develop the new products.

“It's a very exciting development, because we're going to suddenly be able to get those alerts to far more people across California,” he said.

The second new capability that is part of the launch this week is earthquake detection using tiny accelerometers that can pick up seismic activity around the world.

Sponsored

Now, Android phone users can opt in to a network of mini seismometers "that are looking for earthquakes,” said Marc Stogaitis, a Google engineer who helped develop what the company is calling the Android Earthquake Alerts System.

As an earthquake starts to propagate out, Stogaitis said, the phones closest to the epicenter detect the location of the shaking and send a signal to a Google server. The system can then “aggregate data from many folks to determine if an earthquake is happening and how big it is,” he said.

The public can access that information through Google search. For example, if someone who feels shaking in Oakland and types in “earthquake near me,” Google will retrieve the quake data collected by the network of phones.

The phones aren't as accurate as a network of seismometers monitored by professional earthquake scientists who can pinpoint  a quake's epicenter and exact magnitude, but the phone data is available in real time. Previously, although users could see information from the USGS, it wasn't available until several minutes after the quake.

Stogaitis said the goal is to eventually send this global quake data straight to people's phones through alerts, as is now the case for California quakes.

“We’re essentially racing the speed of light (which is roughly the speed at which signals from a phone travel) against the speed of an earthquake,” Stogaitis wrote in a blog post announcing the new product. “And lucky for us, the speed of light is much faster.”

ShakeAlert

First publicly available in 2018, ShakeAlert delivered earthquake warnings to transit agencies and municipalities, but it was not available to the public until last October, when California introduced the cellphone app MyShake, the nation’s first statewide early warning system for the public.

MyShake downloads have been available for IOS users  through iTunes and through GooglePlay stores for Android phones since October 2019.

Allen said users have downloaded the app “about a million” times.

Now, he said, because the system will automatically push the alerts to phones, a much larger fraction of the population in California will benefit.