Astrophysicist Invents a $110 Earthquake Warning System
In the early hours of Aug. 24, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake jolted Californians awake in terror across the Bay Area. But one UC Berkeley professor received five seconds of warning from a $110 homemade device. Now, Josh Bloom has gone public with his invention to drive investment in a statewide early earthquake warning system.
Nobody can predict when an earthquake will occur. However, an earthquake’s shockwaves move at the speed of sound, whereas digital messages move at the speed of light. When seismographs detect an earthquake’s early, imperceptible waves they can warn the areas around the epicenter before the more dangerous waves hit. Both Mexico and Japan have warning systems like this – Tokyo received an estimated 80 seconds of warning before the 2011 quake.
California’s Shake Alert uses data from the California Integrated Seismological Network. Both were developed by a consortium that includes Caltech, UC Berkeley, the U.S. Geological Survey, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the California Geological Survey.
In September 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law compelling the California Office of Emergency Services to build it out for the public. But since then, Shake Alert has received just $10 million of the $80 million it needs, according to The Verge.
“It’s a political question, not a financial question,” Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom told attendees at a warning system conference last week, according to KQED. He pledged the money would come.
Bloom can access Shake Alert because he sits on the board of the Berkeley Seismology Lab. When his device receives a notification of an incoming quake by Wi-Fi, it blares “Earthquake! Earthquake!” and begins a countdown.
The five seconds warning Bloom received might not sound like much, but according to Shake Alert, it only takes seconds to turn off stoves, move away from heavy furniture and take cover under a sturdy table. Outside, gas lines can be shut off and trains can be slowed, possibly saving thousands of lives.
“If you’re a neurosurgeon, you can put the knife away” during that time, Bloom said.
Bloom emphasizes to Mashable that his device couldn’t help anyone right now. Even if someone built their own, they wouldn’t be able to connect to Shake Alert, which he said isn’t “robust” enough for public use. He compares his device to a beta version of an app.
As an astronomy professor, Bloom might seem an unlikely candidate to build an warning system, but he likes tinkering with electronics. His realization that seismologists deal with the same “noisy dirty streaming sensor data” as astrophysicists do, helped encourage him to build his warning system.
He built the device mostly for fun, he said, but after the Napa quake, he thought people should know about it. He deliberately built the sensor from easily available materials such as Raspberry Pi commercial board, an SD card and a powerful speaker.
Once it’s known how easy these devices are to construct, Bloom hopes that the government and private foundations will find the money.
“$800 million is a no-brainer,” he said
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.