Google Adding California Quake Early Warnings to Android Phones

This photo shows a computer replication of the 6.7 magnitude Northridge earthquake of 1994 during a demonstration at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena of of an early earthquake warning system. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

(CN) — Without downloading an app, millions of Californians and even tourists will automatically receive earthquake warnings to their Android cellphones under a deal announced Tuesday by Google and the state. 

By linking to the existing statewide alert system, Google says Android smartphones now can sense earthquakes and give people precious seconds to prepare for the Golden State’s notorious temblors. The Silicon Valley giant says California’s first-in-the-nation network is the perfect testing site for a program it intends to extend across the U.S.

“An early warning can help people prepare for shaking, but the public infrastructure to detect and alert everyone about an earthquake is costly to build and deploy,” the California-based company said in an announcement. “We saw an opportunity to use Android to provide people with timely, helpful earthquake information when they search, as well as a few seconds warning to get themselves and their loved ones to safety if needed.”

Developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, the California Institute of Technology and the U.S. Geological Survey, California launched its system last year on the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake which rocked the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989.

The long-awaited system relies on a network of 700 ground-motion sensors across the state and is the nation’s first statewide early-warning system for earthquakes. Officials, including Governor Gavin Newsom, touted the system as a major scientific breakthrough and potential lifesaver.

Inspired by systems in place for decades in countries like Mexico and Japan, California’s version is designed to send warnings to anyone with the MyShake app that is close enough to feel a magnitude 4.5 or higher earthquake. But under the deal announced Tuesday, installing the app will no longer be necessary for Android users in the nation’s most populous state.

While Newsom said the MyShake app has been downloaded over a million times since it was launched 10 months ago, he saluted Google’s decision to expand the system’s scope. 

“It’s not every day that Silicon Valley looks to state government for state-of-the-art innovation, but that’s exactly what is happening today,” Newsom said of the deal. “This announcement means that California’s world-class Earthquake Early Warning System will be a standard function on every Android phone — giving millions precious seconds to drop, cover and hold on when the big one hits.”

Google says the advancement is part of its plan to build the “world’s largest earthquake detection network” through crowdsourcing. 

According to its announcement, standard Android devices equipped with accelerometers outside of California will send signals and location to the nearest earthquake detection server. The server then will assess messages sent from other Androids to determine whether an earthquake actually occurred. If so, the info will be immediately available on a Google search with tips for lasting through an earthquake.

“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. And lucky for us, the speed of light is much faster!” the company said.

The feature will be included on every Google Play Android cellphone running version 5.0 and can be deactivated by users. Ars Technica, an outlet devoted to tech news and product reviews, estimates over 2 billion Google Play Android devices could use the earthquake-detection software.

The deal comes as experts are warning of the increased likelihood of the next major California earthquake.

Last month, a study in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America said a series of 2019 earthquakes in the Mojave Desert have increased the chances of a magnitude 7.5 or higher in the next year 100-fold — from 0.023% to 2.3%.    

“The best scenario is the earthquake starts way off in the distance and comes your way slowly, giving you the maximum amount of time to prepare,” said Ross Stein, adjunct professor of geophysics at Stanford University who worked on the study. “Earthquake early warning, if successful, has the chance to save lives, that’s why this is a uniquely helpful situation to envision.”

From California, Google says its earthquake alert capability will be expanded to Androids in other states and countries over the next year.

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