Earthquake App Now Has Early Warning Alerts

By Ilene Eng

BERKELEY, Calif.—For the first time, a group of Berkeley researchers have developed a way to warn people in California ahead of time when an earthquake is about to occur.

It works via a new app called MyShake, which receives early warning alerts from the joint U.S. Geological Survey and ShakeAlert system.

Peggy Hellweg said MyShake can now alert Californians when an earthquake with a magnitude of 4.5 or greater strikes their region, at UC Berkeley, California, on Oct. 21, 2019. (Ilene Eng/NTD)

“ShakeAlert is a system that uses our regular seismometers to detect earthquakes quickly and produce the information within a few seconds of the earthquake starting. And send out messages, and those messages go to the MyShake app,” said Peggy Hellweg, operations manager at Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.

The messages then pop up on phones with the app. In other words, if ShakeAlert is the generator, MyShake is the receiver.

People will receive an alert when earthquakes with a 4.5 magnitude or greater strike—usually a few seconds before the quake.

The time varies, depending on the location, for when people can receive the alert before, during, or after the quake happens.

“Because the physics of the Earth, because our system is still… we’re still working to improve the system, there are a variety of reasons. So it all depends on where you are, relative to the earthquake starting,” said Hellweg.

Scientists are still working on how quickly the information can be delivered and how many people need to receive it in a particular area.

“With the MyShake app on Android phones, we can actually ask for a receipt so we know how quickly the phone got the message,” said Hellweg.

She said iOS phones cannot send receipts yet.

For those concerned about privacy, Hellweg says they only know where a phone is within a six-mile block, not the exact location.

They are working to install more seismic stations throughout California and across the Pacific West Coast. The app is only used in California for now, because the State of California asked them to send alerts to everybody in the region before the next big earthquake hits.

Hellweg reminded people that an alert is only a notification and won’t be helpful if people do not know what to do next. People should drop, cover, and hold, and have a survival plan for when an earthquake hits.