A few minutes after one o’clock this morning, my Android phone woke me up by sounding an alarm. The screen flashed up a warning that we were about to experience a magnitude 6 earthquake centered about 230 Km (140 miles) southeast of us. What the heck? An earthquake that far away at only magnitude six is not worth being woken up for, especially if it doesn’t occur. A few seconds later, the house gave an almost imperceptible squeak but no shake at all. A real letdown!.
It turns out that Aotearoa New Zealand is one of two nations (the other being Greece) where Google has rolled out a nationwide earthquake detection service using the accelerometers built into most Android phones. It started here in April, and while it might have been mentioned in the accompanying notes of an Android update (who reads the full list of changes that accompanies an update anyway?), I certainly didn’t notice this “improvement”.
When a phone detects vibrations it sends an alert to Google’s servers, and based on the number of phones that call home, Google attempts to work out if it caused by an earthquake, determines its location and magnitude, and then sends an alert to those in the affected area.
Supposedly the system will give those a little distance from the epicentre a few seconds notice ahead of the shock waves arriving, but the movement of the tectonic plates beneath this land is likely to fool a network of hundreds or thousands of motion sensitive phones. This was one such occasion.
The actual epicentre was hundreds of kilometres northwest of us and was caused by the subduction of the Pacific plate beneath the Australian plate. It was at a depth of 160Km (100 miles) and a magnitude of 5.1. In this type of quake, the energy waves travel along the plate and are felt where the plate reaches the surface – the east coast of the North Island and can be felt over a wide area. Those near the quake centre are unlikely to feel it at all.
My phone is configured to receive National Emergency Management Agency messages, which sends emergency messages regarding not only earthquakes, but many others, including covid-19 notices. I really don’t need another, especially one that’s as wildly inaccurate as Google’s.
Having discovered this new but unwanted “feature”, I decided to switch if off. I knew it had to be in the phone settings somewhere, but exactly where was not revealed after a careful search. The obvious solution was to Google. As I suspected, the instructions were easy to locate. Eight out of the first ten search results gave precise instructions on activating/deactivating earthquake notifications. None applied to my Huawei phone. In all eight case, the first step was to open “Settings” but from there on every step was different, and none were available on my phone. Back to the drawing board.
It took me almost an hour of drilling down through almost every Setting option before I eventually found it hidden in Settings > Security & privacy >Location Access > Advanced settings > Location services > Earthquake alerts. So obvious!
I appreciate that in some parts of the world, earthquakes are rare and dwellings are not designed with them in mind, so Google’s alert for earthquakes of 4.5 and higher might be appropriate. But in this country where earthquakes of that magnitude or greater occur several times a month, there’s only one way to describe the service: Bloody annoying!