Your phone could warn you when an earthquake is coming

The Haiti earthquake, 2010. Image: United Nations Development Program via Flickr.

Wouldn't it be great if we could hear about earthquakes in advance? Ideally, we'd get a whole week's warning, but even a single minute could give you time to get to safety, or at the very least to move away from any rickety structures nearby. Yet early earthquake detection systems – based on a delicate system of accelerometers, sensors and computers – are expensive, and are only in widespread use in a couple of places worldwide.

What's been overlooked until now, however, are the one billion tiny earthquake sensors we've all been carrying around in our pockets. 

Most modern smartphones contain GPS and satellite navigation sensors – essentially, slightly less sophisticated versions of what are used in earthquake sensing systems anyway. Scientists from US Geological Survey and several US universities drew on this fact to create a concept for a new type of detection system, which would crowdsource information from lots of phones in an area, to watch for oncoming tremors. 

Earthquakes take place when the earth, literally, moves; that movement can be picked up by GPS and navigation systems. If a phone and four others nearby detect a displacement of more than 5cm, the researchers' "ShakeAlert" model is "triggered". If the system receives 100 such triggers, an alert is sent out to phones in nearby areas.  

This diagram from the researchers shows phones at the earthquake's centre alerting those further away before strong shaking hits their area:

More sophisticated systems can try to predict earthquakes much eartlier through detecting tiny tremors months, or even years, beforehand. But it's always hard to pinpoint exactly when one will happen, and this phone-based model sends out the most urgent message – that the first rumblings of an earthquake have just occured – in an incredibly efficient way. 

The researchers are particularly excited that their model could provide warnings in areas that can't afford more sophisticated detection systems. Douglas Given, coordinator of the ShakeAlert system, says:

The US earthquake early warning system is being built on our high-quality scientific earthquake networks, but crowdsourced approaches can augment our system and have real potential to make warnings possible in places that don’t have high-quality networks.

And outside the US, this could be a solution for high-risk earthquake areas, such as Haiti, which may not be able to afford to install large networks of scientific instruments. 


Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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