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Your Laptop Could Detect The Next Earthquake

The Quake-Catcher Network application runs silently in the background of your laptop, collecting data from the computer's accelerometer.
Photo illustration by Melisa Goh
The Quake-Catcher Network application runs silently in the background of your laptop, collecting data from the computer's accelerometer.

By downloading a free program, you and your laptop could help researchers pinpoint earthquakes and even sound an early warning to surrounding areas.

Newer models of laptops manufactured by companies like Apple and Lenovo contain accelerometers -- motion sensors meant to detect whether the computer has been dropped. If the computer falls, the hard drive will automatically switch off to protect the user's data.

"As soon as I knew there were these low-cost sensors inside these accelerometers, I thought it would be perfect to use them to network together and actually record earthquakes," says geoscientist Elizabeth Cochran of the University of California, Riverside.

So a few years ago, Cochran got in touch with Jesse Lawrence, a colleague at Stanford. They whipped up a program called the Quake-Catcher Network. It's a free download that runs silently in the background, collecting data from the computer's accelerometer and waiting to detect an earthquake.

Laptop accelerometers aren't as sensitive as professional-grade seismometers, so they can only pick up tremors of about magnitude 4.0 and above. But when a laptop does sense a tremor, it'll ping the researchers' server. "And when our server receives a bunch of those, we then say, 'This is a likely earthquake,' " Lawrence says.

Up until now, scientists have been hampered by the lack of enough sensors around the world to monitor and record earthquake data. Cochran and Lawrence hope their application will help build a network of earthquake sensors thousands of laptops strong.

Right now, only about a thousand people across the world have the software installed on their computers. The goal is to grow that number to 10,000 in California alone. They're beefing up the numbers by making external USB-connected accelerometers available to people who don't have them built in to their computers -- and installing those in schools as part of an educational program.

With more monitoring stations, Lawrence says he'll be able to gather a finer idea of how exactly earthquakes unfold. And there are other benefits.

"If you can detect an event fast enough, then you can potentially provide advance alert to surrounding areas, and those areas could react in several seconds and get to safety," he says.

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