GUY RAZ, host:
First, it was Haiti then Chile then Mexico and this week, China. Doesn't it seem like there have been an unusual number of earthquakes lately? Well, a short answer is there haven't. It's just that by coincidence, they've been happening in more populated areas this year.
And scientists who study earthquakes have been looking for ways to install more sensors in vulnerable places to capture crucial data, and also perhaps to give people a few precious seconds of advanced warning.
Well, we asked one of our producers, Travis Larchuk to find out what they've come up with. And Travis, what have they come up with?
TRAVIS LARCHUK: Well, here it is, Guy. This is an earthquake monitor.
RAZ: Which is, to me, and I would assume to most people, is your laptop - it looks like your laptop computer.
LARCHUK: Well, it is a laptop computer. But the cool thing about it is this software that I installed. Check it out here.
RAZ: Okay. So, I'm looking at your screen right now and there's like a, what looks like an EKG monitor or anyone who's seen a seismograph on TV after an earthquake can see that it's just sort of four sort of straight lines moving down the screen.
LARCHUK: Yeah. They're pretty flat right now but watch this.
(Soundbite of banging)
RAZ: Oh wow. So, when we bang on the table they kind of spike up and down and...
LARCHUK: Yeah, just like a seismograph during an earthquake would do. And this is all the idea of Elizabeth Cochran. She's a geoscientist at the University of California Riverside. And one day, she was just thinking about these accelerometers that are built into newer laptop computer models.
RAZ: And accelerometers - I should mention, 'cause you told me this - is basically a motion detector in a computer.
LARCHUK: Right. And the reason it's inside of these laptop computers is so it can detect whether you've dropped your computer and then it'll switch off the hard drive to help protect data.
Dr. ELIZABETH COCHRAN (Geophysicist, University of California Riverside): So, as soon as I knew that there were these little cost sensors inside the accelerometers, I thought it would be perfect to use them to network together and actually record earthquakes.
LARCHUK: So Elizabeth Cochran got in touch with a colleague at Stanford and they whipped up a program that anyone can download for free and install and it's silently waiting to detect tremors.
RAZ: So it just waits for a tremor. But, sort of practically speaking, how do they work?
LARCHUK: All right. Well, let's pretend we're sitting in a coffee shop in San Francisco. And you're working on your laptop computer just like all the other hipsters in there.
Unidentified Man: I just ordered a soy macchiato on my iPad.
LARCHUK: And all of a sudden, the whole place starts to shake. It's not too bad - maybe a 4.5. But the whole time, the Quake-Catcher software has been capturing the data from the motion sensor in your laptop computer. And then the program sends a quick little note to the main servers saying, hey, heads up, something's going on here.
Dr. JESSE LAWRENCE (Geoscientist, Stanford University): And when our server receives a bunch of those, we then say this is a likely earthquake.
LARCHUK: That's the Stanford geoscientist. His name's Jesse Lawrence.
But the thing is, right now, there are only around a thousand people across the world who are actually running this program.
RAZ: So, if it's just a thousand people, how useful is the program now?
LARCHUK: It's not extremely useful but the goal is for them to get 10,000 people just in California alone, and that's because the more people you have, the better this thing works.
Dr. LAWRENCE: If you can detect an event fast enough, then you can potentially provide advanced alert to surrounding areas and those surrounding areas could react within several seconds and get to safety.
LARCHUK: And for people who don't have fancy laptop computers, they've also worked up an external accelerometer you can plug into your computer's USB drive. They're installing a lot of those in schools now actually.
RAZ: And if the whole thing, you know, runs on these accelerometers, presumably it can work on iPhones too because when you, as you know, when you turn them, there's a motion sensor to detect which way you're holding the phone.
LARCHUK: Right, and I did ask Jesse Lawrence about that.
Dr. LAWRENCE: There is a potential to use the accelerometers in smartphones; we've been investigating that.
LARCHUK: He says it's tricky to figure out right now because the phone's usually in your pocket and they don't want to detect a false earthquake every time you go to sit down. But imagine what they could do if every smartphone in California were linked into this network.
RAZ: That's very, very cool. That's our producer, Travis Larchuk. And Travis, I assume there is a link on our website to the Quake-Catcher Network?
LARCHUK: Yep. It's there at npr.org.
RAZ: Thanks, Travis.
LARCHUK: No problem, Guy.
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