Scientists Follow Earthquakes on Twitter

SAN FRANCISCO — Earthquake experts have found a new way to "follow" earthquakes in real-time: Twitter.

Scientists at the United States Geological Survey (USGS) recently noticed that users of the micro-blogging service in seismically active areas of the world were quick to note and report any temblors and movements of the Earth that they felt.

And not only were Twitterers quick to note quakes in 140 characters or fewer, "there were reports that people on Twitter were beating the USGS" at getting out alerts of earthquake activity, said USGS scientist Paul Earle.

Earlier this year, USGS scientists decided to see if they could harness this citizen science reporting and glean information about earthquakes from them. They presented their preliminary work here yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Earle and his colleagues have begun monitoring tweets (by searching for keywords such as "earthquake") after a seismometer somewhere in the world alerts them to the rupture of an earthquake. Both the tweets themselves as well as the locations of the twitterers can tell scientists something, for example, how soon temblors were felt and how far away from an earthquake's epicenter they extended.

After one minor temblor in southern California, the first tweet from the area that noted the shaking (and simply read "earthquake!") came just 13 seconds after seismometers registered the quake.

Earle said that quake tweets haven't contributed much in the way of registering the degree of shaking or in well-monitored areas, but could help get out alerts in areas around the world that are less well-monitored or during earthquakes that are minor but felt over a wide area.

Earle said his team hopes to increase the number of places they can monitor with twitter by learning likely earthquake-related keywords in other languages (the direct translation for "earthquake" may not be the most-likely tweeted term).

The team has experimented with compiling the location of twitterers into Google maps (wrong locations, re-tweets, and references to other topics, such as the video game Quake, have to be factored out), as well as other ways to use the Twitter data.

While the scientists haven't yet decided what they will ultimately do with the twitter data, Earle said the project has been useful, and some of the tweets have used unusual ways to describe the shaking of an earthquake. For example, one twitterer in Wellington, New Zealand, wrote, "My monitors were shaking like the water in Jurassic Park, kinda awesome," after a December temblor shook the area.

"It's kind of amazing to see first-hand accounts," Earle told LiveScience.

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Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.