When Is the Next Big One? Earthquake App Will Finally Give U.S. Early Warning System

A house near the San Andreas fault line in California. David McNew/Getty

If you find yourself asleep as the plates beneath the Earth's surface shift, sending hills and buildings shaking, you might—one day—be awoken a push notification on your phone. An app developed by Early Warning Labs in Santa Monica called QuakeAlert, currently in testing, may soon be able to give people in earthquake prone areas advance warning, Wired reports.

The app, not yet available for full public use, did alert two testers to Thursday's quake in the Bay Area, according to Wired. It's expected to roll out more fully within the year.

Powered by a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) system known as ShakeAlert, QuakeAlert is a small step toward putting the U.S. on track with other earthquake-vulnerable countries. Japan and Mexico, both particularly susceptible, have had warning systems in place—in some cities, at least—for alerting people within their borders of impending quakes since 2007 and 1991 respectively. According to Wired, Mexico City has a system that blasts a warning through speakers in public places that people have 60 to 90 seconds to find somewhere safe before an earthquake begins. According to the Japanese Meteorological Agency, an alert system established in 2007 gives people a very short notice to warn of impending quakes through radio, text, and television messages.

As Newsweek has previously written, current Earthquake warning systems are a race between radio waves and energy waves that travel through rock. Radio waves always win, so as a quake makes its way through 75 miles of rock to the surface of Mexico City, a radio message buys people precious seconds to brace themselves.

That's the technology behind ShakeAlert. According to Wired, "QuakeAlert is just one application of what you can do with ShakeAlert data."

"Think of it as as a tornado warning," Doug Given of the USGS told Newsweek, "The National Weather Service produces the tornado warning, but getting it into the hands of users...involves additional work that can be done by other groups."

Other research has looked into the future possibility of creating warning systems that give up to a week's notice about impending quakes by focusing on the sounds rocks make as they rumble up against one another.

And while it may be impossible to predict when and where the next Big One will hit, a system like this could buy people vital time to try to reach safety.