PacSci Perspectives

From Slight to Sudden: How GPS Can Prepare You for the Next Quake

By Shelley Olds, Education and Community Engagement Specialist, UNAVCO

Monitoring A Shfting Earth

Monitoring A Shfting Earth inside Building 2 across from the Tots Area.

Imagine – the ground beneath your feet is moving, very slowly, and then quickly, the moving becomes shaking and you can hardly stand on your feet. Walls are tremoring, picture frames are falling off the walls and the windows are rattling incessantly. You’re frantically trying to remember the earthquake safety procedures you learned from grade school. Should you run outside or stay put? If only you had been warned, you could’ve been ready for the shaking!

In the not-so-distant future, a massive earthquake will rip along the boundary between the tectonic plate we live on (the North America plate) and the Juan de Fuca plate, shaking Seattle and the entire Pacific Northwest. Although we cannot predict when an earthquake is going to occur, a system is being developed so that communities can receive a warning to take action while an earthquake is happening, and before the main shaking starts rattling the ground beneath your feet. The Monitoring a Shifting Earth exhibit, now on display at Pacific Science Center, showcases what you can do in the event of an earthquake and/or tsunami and the technologies being used to measure, monitor and provide warning of these hazards.

The initial display, “Seconds Count,” reveals information about what to do in an earthquake, what earthquake warning systems will be able to do and how these systems in the near future will work. You’ll learn more about the actions you can take to protect yourself during an earthquake, to “Drop, Cover, and Hold on”.

Throughout the exhibit, you can see the actual components of a high-precision GPS station–the same type of GPS equipment you can find installed throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond to monitor the slow motion of the tectonic plates. This technology already yields important information about seismic hazards, and will play a vital role in future early warning systems. By sending real-time positions, these GPS stations will help provide cities like Seattle up to two minutes of warning before shaking hits, and will help coastal communities prepare for possible tsunamis.  This network of GPS stations is part of the Plate Boundary Observatory, operated by UNAVCO on behalf of the National Science Foundation as part of the EarthScope program. Spread throughout the exhibit are many hands-on elements to experience where the ground under our feet is moving, how we are able to measure this movement, and the processes of Earth motion.

Don’t miss this new exhibit and learn more about the hazards and precautions you can take in your state and region!