But the sensors are surprisingly sensitive, and It can also work like a mini seismometer.
Google has introduced a function that allows users to allow their phones to automatically send data to Android Earthquake Alerts System, if their instrument picked up the vibrations characteristic of the primary (P) waves of an earthquake. By integrating data from thousands or even millions of other phones, the system can tell if and where an earthquake is occurring. It can then send alerts to phones in the area where seismic waves are likely to hit, giving an early warning.
And because radio signals travel faster than seismic waves, alerts can reach areas far from the epicenter of the earthquake before shaking begins.
Mark Stogaitis, Android Software Engineer, Put it like this“We’re basically racing the speed of light (which is roughly how fast signals from a phone travel) against the speed of an earthquake. Lucky for us, the speed of light is much faster!”
Since most of the data is crowdsourced, the technology opens up the possibility of monitoring earthquakes in areas without extensive networks of expensive seismometers. This means that it increases the possibility of providing earthquake alerts in the most remote and poorest parts of the world.
In October 2022, engineers at Google saw phones across the San Francisco Bay Area Light up with earthquake detection data Where seismic waves travel outward from the epicenter.
The current system regularly picks up these vibrations. Recently, at noon on April 4, 2023, 4.5 magnitude earthquake that occurred near Tres Pinos, California Taken by the ShakeAlert system, Launching messages on mobile phones for uses in the area. Earthquakes are a common occurrence in California It experiences up to 100 small earthquakes a day. Most of these things are too small to be felt. However, there are usually several larger earthquakes in California each year, with About 15-20 above size 4.0.
On a larger scale, than estimated 16 billion mobile phones In use around the world, over Three billion Android runs on it The earthquake alert system is now available in more than 90 countries that are particularly prone to earthquakes.
But the system has its limitations, particularly in Remote areas where there are few phone users And in earthquakes that occur abroad where they can lead to tsunamis. And while it can help to generate alerts a few seconds in advance, the science of predicting earthquakes before they happen remains as elusive as ever. (Read more about How scientists are trying to detect early signs of these natural disasters.)
If you like this story, Subscribe to the bbc.com weekly newslettercalled “The Essential List” – a carefully selected collection of stories from the BBC futureAnd cultureAnd work lifeAnd Travel And early Delivered to your inbox every Friday.
“Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst.”