As random and chaotic as most natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis may seem, it's turning out that GPS –– yes, the very same that helps everyone from the military to you navigate your way around –– may actually be able to grant us earlier and more accurate alerts.
According to recent research, the global positioning system (GPS) could have helped to more quickly alert coastal residents in Japan before the magnitude 9.0 earthquake rocked the area back in May 11, 2011. The residents had at the time only received information that turned out to be devastatingly inaccurate as far as the magnitude of the quake that resulted in monstrous tsunamis that in turn wiped out thousands of area buildings.
"The area under alert was warned based on an estimated earthquake magnitude of 7.9 - 130 times less intense than the actual quake was - meaning fewer neighborhoods were evacuated in response to the perceived threat," LiveScience reports in its analysis on Wednesday, May 22.
The new study suggests that had data from GPS been accounted for in the early alert, more coastal Japan residents would have been warned, and all within three minutes of "sifting through" such data.
But how can GPS help more accurately predict tsunamis?
Tsunamis take place after an earthquake is caused by tectonic plate shifting (namely that which causes the seafloor itself to literally be forced upward, greatly affecting the height of the tsunami). GPS can help us determine how much the coast is slightly rising or falling in conjunction with the seafloor.
We can therefore use GPS to determine seafloor/coastal shifting and thus be more (accurately) aware of how high/strong resulting tsunamis in the area will be.
Whereas conventional seismological stations are generally placed further away from the source, GPS transmitters can be placed right on the coast. This helps us buy significant time that can help alert residents much sooner.
"To really get absolute values of slip, you would need to have stations at the seafloor," Andreas Hoechner, a postdoctoral researcher at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam, said.
"However, [the coastal GPS readings are] good enough to get good tsunami wave estimates."
Hoechner added that traditional seismological stations are useful in their own ways, too, but that they should be used along with GPS transmitters for the most accurate readings and early warnings possible.
What researchers and scientists are trying to do now that this information is better understood is figure out how to employ GPS transmitters for "real events," and not just for the simulation of past tsunamis. For this to happen, researchers say more GPS transmitters will need to be installed.
Hoechner, along with colleagues, will be expanding this research to Chile, where a crippling tsunami hit in 2010.
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