In 5.3 magnitude LA quake, this app gave an early warning

Every second counts when it comes to earthquake preparedness, but a few beta app users got more notice than others in today's 5.3 magnitude Channel Islands quake. A new app, QuakeAlert, developed by Early Warning Labs, is promising to give a vital heads-up on incoming tremors, and in future it could mean getting through natural disasters unscathed.

The goal is to translate existing data sources monitoring the geological behavior of the Earth into actionable, easily understood messages that can be delivered quickly on a smartphone. In the case of QuakeAlert, the developers are using US Geological Survey (USGS) sensors already tracking earthquakes in real-time. However, while the data might be collected, there's a disconnect in getting it to the public.

The USGS tracks so-called P-waves, the harmless and speedy precursors to S-waves which cause the actual damage in quake situations. There's only a short period of time before the P-wave being registered and the S-wave hitting – a matter of seconds, rather than minutes, in fact – but even that, if delivered in a timely manner, can be useful.

"In that 20 seconds you're able to drop to the floor, crawl under your desk, and hold on," Early Warning Labs points out. Rather than the existing system of public warnings, which require a human to script up the notification and manually send it out, QuakeAlert is designed to be automatic. That means it can be much faster, not to mention more targeted.

For example, an automatic system can take into account not only geographic distance from where the S-waves are measured, but the intervening conditions that might alter their impact. That can include soil densities, for example, as well as the presence of bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure. The result should be fewer false-positives – warnings of quakes that users don't end up feeling – and more confidence that, when an alert does come through, it shouldn't be second-guessed.

QuakeAlert's notification gives a terse overview of the severity of the earthquake, along with how long before it's expected to hit. Rather than being expressed in scientific language, like "5.3 magnitude," it uses more readily-grasped descriptions. Beta users in Los Angeles today, for example, were warned that they could expect "weak shaking": opening the notification brought up a map with more details.

Depending on the user's location and the nature of the quake itself, anything up to sixty seconds of warning could be delivered by the app, Early Warning Lab suggests. That's more than enough time to move away from anything potentially dangerous, like glass or precarious objects, and find some temporary cover. Right now, QuakeAlert is in beta, with limited access as the system is tested out.