For years, scientists have struggled to collect accurate real-time data on earthquakes, but a new article published today in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America may have found a better tool for the job, using the same accelerometers found in most modern smartphones. The article finds that the MEMS accelerometers in current smartphones are sensitive enough to detect earthquakes of magnitude five or higher when located near the epicenter. Because the devices are so widely used, scientists speculate future smartphone models could be used to create an "urban seismic network," transmitting real-time geological data to authorities whenever a quake takes place.
The authors pointed to Stanford's Quake-Catcher Network as an inspiration, which connects seismographic equipment to volunteer computers to create a similar network. But using smartphone accelerometers would be cheaper and easier to carry into extreme environments. The sensor will need to become more sensitive before it can be used in the field, but the authors say once technology catches up, a smartphone accelerometer could be the perfect earthquake research tool. As one researcher told The Verge, "right from the start, this technology seemed to have all the requirements for monitoring earthquakes — especially in extreme environments, like volcanoes or underwater sites."