Earthquakes could soon be measured using smartphones readings from thousands of users. Sensors within the electronic devices could be utilized to detect earthquakes and transmit data to others in the area, researchers determined.

Smartphones could be used as an early warning system in regions of the world where advanced scientific detectors are not available. Although the personal network is not as accurate as professional equipment, they could provide some degree of protection in areas where more expensive systems are not in place. Cellular phones could also serve to augment and enhance data gathered from professional systems in regions like Japan where networks of detectors serve to provide warnings of the potentially hazardous events.

"The use of mobile phone fleets as a distributed sensor network-and the statistical insight that many imprecise instruments can contribute to the creation of more precise measurements-has broad applicability including great potential to benefit communities where there isn't an existing network of scientific instruments," Bob Iannucci of Carnegie Mellon University said.

The system works because Global Positioning System (GPS) data from mobile phones travels faster than pressure waves within rocks. Crowdsourcing data from around 5,000 users of a special app living in an urban area could be used to quickly model an earthquake as it develops, and a warning could be issued to people living in outlying regions before strong tremors are felt.

Smartphone sensors are capable of measuring earthquakes of magnitude seven and above, but they they are unable to detect shaking below that level. These geological events are considered to be major earthquakes which can result in serious damage. Roughly 20 magnitude seven earthquakes are recorded around the world each year.

Most Americans associate these events with the San Andreas fault in California. However, nine of the 10 most powerful earthquakes in the current 50 states during modern times occurred in Alaska. The famous San Francisco earthquake that destroyed The City by the Bay in 1906 is only number 16 on a list produced by the U.S. Geological Survey.

"Crowd-sourced data are less precise (than high-quality networks), but for larger earthquakes ... they contain enough information to detect that an earthquake has occurred, information necessary for early warning," said Susan Owen, one of the authors of an article detailing the study.

One challenge for developers of such a system is that such an app would require raw GPS data, which is not shared by smartphone manufacturers.

Study of how mobile phones could be used to detect earthquakes and warn people of impending danger was published in the journal Science Advances.

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