Newer models of laptops manufactured by companies like Apple and Lenovo contain accelerometers — motion sensors meant to detect whether the computer has been dropped. If the computer falls, the hard drive will automatically switch off to protect the user’s data.
“As soon as I knew there were these low-cost sensors inside these accelerometers, I thought it would be perfect to use them to network together and actually record earthquakes,” says geoscientist Elizabeth Cochran of the University of California, Riverside.
So a few years ago, Cochran got in touch with Jesse Lawrence, a colleague at Stanford. They whipped up a program called the Quake-Catcher Network. It’s a free download that runs silently in the background, collecting data from the computer’s accelerometer and waiting to detect an earthquake.
Laptop accelerometers aren’t as sensitive as professional-grade seismometers, so they can only pick up tremors of about magnitude 4.0 and above. But when a laptop does sense a tremor, it’ll ping the researchers’ server. “And when our server receives a bunch of those, we then say, ‘This is a likely earthquake,’ ” Lawrence says.
Folks who don’t have laptops with accelerometers and still want to participate can purchase a USB sensor for use at their desktop computers. A lot of these, reportedly, are being installed in public schools.