Who can forget the devastation of the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004 or the one that swept over Japan in 2011? There were hundreds of thousands of lives lost and billions of dollars in damage sustained. Although these natural disasters cannot be prevented, people are asking if there is a better way to predict these events and thus prevent such catastrophic losses. Scientists see hope for a better warning system in the implementation of GPS technology to detect a tsunami in its infancy.
NASA researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California plan to use the GPS data gathered from specialized ground receivers capable of detecting even the minutest changes in the ionosphere, a part of the upper atmosphere. Even far out to sea, the rippling changes in sea level created by a tsunami send invisible waves through the atmosphere and into the ionosphere, nearly 217.5 miles above sea level, where they are recorded through global positioning system tracking. The scientists can then map these waves and anticipate the swell and power of a tsunami.
JPL actually had the opportunity to test its theories with the immense earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan. Reviewing data collected from 1,200 GPS receivers along the coast of Japan, researchers were able to distinguish the seismic waves of the earthquake and the effect they had on the ocean’s currents but not in time to provide adequate warning.
At the University of Hawaii—Manoa (UHM) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, researchers are looking at the possibility of getting GPS tracking systems placed on all commercial shipping vessels. One of the organization’s research vessels actually detected a tsunami initiated by an earthquake in Chili in 2010 on its voyage between Guam and Hawaii, and scientists believe that had ships in the Indian Ocean been equipped with this technology, the people of Indonesia may have had another hour to flee to safety before the 98-foot waves hit.
Surveyors and geodesists have long used GPS tracking in their fields of study for accuracy in measuring and analyzing. Now, advances are also being made in the early detection of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as well as tsunamis. Researchers at JPL are working tirelessly to collect real-time GPS measurements from around the world in an effort to establish a global tsunami warning system that they hope will help save lives in the future.