A Hand-Held Heads-Up for Earthquakes - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Hand-Held Heads-Up for Earthquakes

A Hand-Held Heads-Up for Earthquakes

By Eric Pfeiffer

SourceDavid L. Ryan / Getty Images


Because when the Big One strikes, wouldn’t you like to know in advance?

By Eric Pfeiffer

Even the world’s top scientists haven’t been able to precisely predict when earthquakes and tsunamis will strike. But if you live in or near California, you know the Big One is coming sooner or later. So a heads-up would be nice. Preferably on my smartphone.

On Aug. 24, 2014, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system received a 10-second warning before a 6.0 earthquake traversed roughly 40 miles from Napa Valley to San Francisco. The warning shot came from a pilot program nicknamed ShakeAlert, being developed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which is methodically implementing an earthquake early-warning detection system. Meanwhile, Brinco is another system, developed by one of a handful of entrepreneurs who are trying to create early-warning systems that don’t rely on government funding. Each investor helps support the deployment of a sensor that works in conjunction with a network of similar devices to pick and analyze seismic data on potential quakes. The system then sends out a personalized warning to the phones of users across the globe who are potentially in the path of destruction. It doesn’t yet have the extensive infrastructure behind it like the USGS project, but Brinco’s creators promise something more appealing to most people: a simple-to-use app that will alert you before disaster strikes, giving you precious seconds to take shelter — or will even tell you to just relax.

An earthquake just occurred nearby. You are going to feel a little bump, but no worries — this is a small one.

Seismologist Branden Christensen said he and Brinco co-creator Angel Rodriguez (an expert in seismic instrumentation) wanted to offer the public a system that not only seeks to understand quakes and tsunamis, but also gives users an effective warning. Currently they’re focused on creating a sensor layer across the Bay Area. Christensen explains that while scientists at the USGS are “pioneers” when it comes to monitoring and early-warning systems, “there was never a mechanism to get that information to you without delay ahead of the shaking.” Brinco talks to its users with messages like “An earthquake just occurred nearby. You are going to feel a little bump but no worries, this is a small one” or “Strong shaking expected in 30 seconds. No risk of tsunami.”

“Density matters,” Christensen says when asked why the fundraising goal is important. However, the team plans to methodically increase the number of detectors over time until it is able to expand its reach beyond the Bay Area. But even if Brinco fully achieves its goals, there are still limits. Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning Coordinator with the USGS, says that a personal warning system is nice and could definitely save lives, but the priority needs to be on securing things like infrastructure and public transportation in order to maximize the effectiveness of early-warning systems. “An app won’t stop trains, ensure automated controls on factory floors or stop elevators,” he says. However, even Christensen says it would be cool if someday Brinco moves beyond the app space and into something virtually invisible — like the fire alarms installed in nearly every home and business.   

We can’t actually stop earthquakes or tsunamis. You can debate the effectiveness of relying solely on a private or public solution, but it seems like for now, there’s space for both. So if government agencies and entrepreneurs can unofficially collaborate to protect society’s brick and mortar while also giving us a cool app that tells us when to duck and cover, we’re all for it.


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