Google is getting further into the business of saving lives. Today, the internet giant announced that users of its Android phones in New Zealand and Greece will receive warnings of damaging earthquakes about to strike their locations. And those earthquakes will be detected not by the usual seismometers, but by the phones themselves.
Earthquakes are a well-known threat in both countries. In New Zealand, the Pacific Plate collides with the Australian Plate and their grinding regularly causes large quakes, including a 2011 shock in Christchurch that killed nearly 200 people. Greece is spread across three tectonic plates, with damaging quakes a near-annual occurrence. But neither country has deployed an operational warning system. That created an opportunity to make a difference, says Marc Stogaitis, the project’s lead engineer at Google. “We have two big problems we want to solve: detecting earthquakes as quickly as possible and sending out alerts as quickly as possible.”
Such earthquake early warning systems take advantage of a simple fact: The speed of light travels faster through the fiber optic cables of the internet than an earthquake’s waves. Traditional warning systems use seismometers to detect an earthquake’s size and magnitude, then relay a warning, via smartphone or loudspeakers, to residents likely to feel the quake. Such warnings, even if they only come seconds before a quake hits, can buy people enough time to drop to the floor, take cover beneath a desk, or hold on until the shaking stops. These systems are robust, but they are difficult and expensive to develop. One system, known as ShakeAlert, took 15 years to create and deploy in California, Oregon, and—starting next week—Washington state. It cost $60 million to build and needs more than $30 million annually to operate.