The threat of earthquakes is just a regular part of life for much of the globe. This was most prominently on display just this past February, when a massive magnitude 7. 8 quake struck parts of Turkey and Syria and led to the deaths of nearly 60,000 people, and left 1. 5 million others homeless. Tens of thousands of aftershocks–some almost as powerful as the original earthquake itself–plagued the region for weeks.
Scientists want to know how to forecast this scenario in advance so that people can find shelter and not be caught by surprise. There are no reliable methods for predicting earthquakes. The best systems to date alert people within a few seconds of an earthquake beginning .
But what if we could forecast a large earthquake will strike with up to two hours of advance warning? A team of French scientists believes they may have stumbled on a method for doing so. It doesn’t even require any new technology–just the use of one that you are already familiar with, GPS.
Short for the Global Positioning System, GPS is a series of dozens of satellites used to collect and provide geolocation and time information to users on Earth, for both military and civilian purposes. The scientists behind the new study, published Thursday in the journal Science, used GPS data to analyze the changes in horizontal position occurring at over 3,000 geodetic after 90 major earthquakes around the globe (all of a magnitude 7.0 or higher)
The findings suggest that the horizontal movements of the stations “exponentially accelerated” in a direction consistent with how a slow fault slip (the deformation of two points in the Earth’s crust) begins to occur a couple hours near where the epicenter of an earthquake will hit.
In other words, GPS data could be used to measure the start of a fault slip that would eventually lead to a major earthquake up to two hours in advance of the first seismic shocks. We could theoretically monitor real-time GPS data that looks for subtle movements at areas of interest as an alert that a slow fault slip has begun and could lead to a major earthquake.
Two hours may not seem like too much time on its own–but it would be an incredible improvement from current detection methods. Before an earthquake, it could effectively be the difference between life and death for thousands.
“If it can be confirmed that earthquake nucleation often involves an hours-long precursory phase, and the means can be developed to reliably measure it, a precursor warning could be issued,” Roland Burgmann, a seismologist at the University of California, Berkeley who was not involved with the study, wrote in an accompanying essay in Science.
Burgmann added that new advancements in machine learning and AI could augment our ability to spot these minute shifts in horizontal position.
There are plenty of caveats to the study–notably that not all slow fault slips lead to major earthquakes, and not all major earthquakes are preceded by slow fault slips. It’s not a test to see if GPS can predict earthquakes. The study merely demonstrates that GPS data shows some correlations with earthquakes.
But the ability to monitor for such events and give an hour or two of warning to people, even for just a select number of earthquakes, seems within our grasp. The authors wrote that “our observation indicates that precursory signs exist, and the precision needed to monitor them are not orders of magnitudes beyond our current capabilities.”
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