GPS Technology Provides Faster, More Accurate Tsunami Warnings

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The many incredible uses of GPS technology seems to grow by the day. One of the latest ways GPS tracking systems are improving the world we live in is tsunami warning technology. Who can forget the devastating tsunami that took the lives of more than 16,000 Japanese in 2011? That massive surge of water was propelled by an earthquake at the bottom of the ocean floor off the coast of Japan. Researchers have found a way to detect potential tsunamis faster and more accurately with GPS technology.

“In case of a subduction earthquake, one plate slips under another plate,” explained lead researcher Dr. Andreas Hoechner. “It is measured in terms of relative displacement. This deformation is mostly above the source, but the coastal areas is also deformed and this can be picked up by GPS.” The GPS devices are placed around the coast of vulnerable countries. When the tectonic plates shift, the tracking devices provide seismologists with precise information showing the power of the earthquake. This information is used to determine how powerful the coming tsunami will be. “Then you can then predict the tsunami and see how high a wave could be expected, with some accuracy.” 

Prior to GPS, tsunami warning systems were based on seismological data, which measure the waves of energy produced by the earthquake. The 2011 tsunami in Japan was predicted by this system in around 3 minutes, but unfortunately the information was inaccurate. The seismological data suggested that the earthquake was a magnitude 7.9, but the actual earthquake was actually 30 times stronger than that. The resulting tsunami was also much more powerful than originally predicted.  

In the wake of the devastation, researchers studied data collected by GPS devices around the coast, which where already there for unrelated reasons. The determined that the GPS data provided much more accurate information about the earth’s movement. “One point is to have the technology to realize what the earthquake is and where the tsunami will be. But it is at least as important to disseminate the warning. You have to have the infrastructure to transmit this information to the population, and the population has to be ready to know what to do,” said Dr. Hoechner.

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