On the Edge: Tracking Slips and Creeps: Earthquake Monitoring Gets Substantial Boost from GPS

July 1, 2011  - By

By Tracy Cozzens

The Earth’s surface is constantly shifting, being deformed as earthquake faults accumulate strain, and slip or slowly creep over time. Not long ago, scientists relied solely on seismometers to monitor the earth’s movements. Today, GPS has taken prominence as an indispensible tool.

PANGA, the monitoring network covering the Pacific Northwest, uses GPS to monitor this movement by measuring the precise position (within 5 millimeters or less) of stations near active faults relative to each other. By determining how the stations have moved, ground deformation can be determined.

If the plates near the coast or the Cascade Mountains move even a few centimeters, the scientists at PANGA know within seconds. The network is still being built, but eventually it’s expected that PANGA will be able to sense earthquakes faster and more accurately than traditional seismometers, and issue alerts to warn citizens of impending activity.

“GPS is helpful in distinguishing magnitude 8 from M9 earthquakes quickly,” explained Rex Flake, PANGA. “By design, seismometers only record high-frequency energy that becomes saturated during strong ground motion. Moreover, seismic data ‘clip’ at high magnitudes whereas GPS become more accurate. Seismographs are mainly intended to detect very small to moderately large earthquakes. GPS gives actual ground motions that in theory could be incorporated very quickly into tsunami models and warning systems. That is one of the things we are working on now.”

Volcano Watch. “A more speculative application is that some (not all by any measure) large earthquakes are preceded by slow creep events,” said Andrew Miner, PANGA. “While not really good enough to predict an earthquake, I think if we saw a very large transient creep event it would at least ring alarm bells. Unfortunately though, earthquakes are by their nature just not very predictable, at least to the level of a day or week that people could reasonably act on. On the bright side, volcanoes are reasonably predictable, and GPS is also an important tool in monitoring them. We work with the Cascade Volcano Observatory on several monitoring projects.”

PANGA is one of a series of earthquake monitoring networks stretching along the West Coast. The Pacific Northwest Geodetic Array is run by the PANGA Geodesy Laboratory at Central Washington University (CWU) in Ellensburg, and  includes 300 continuously operating, high-precision GPS receivers located throughout the Pacific Northwest. Sixty more stations are expected to be installed this year. Trimble, Leica, Topcon, and Javad are the main receivers used in the region.

Data from these receivers is continuously downloaded, analyzed, archived, and disseminated. About one third of PANGA’s GPS stations are telemetered in real-time back to CWU, where the data are processed using NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s GIPSY/OASIS II software for high-precision data analysis, and Trimble’s RTKNet Integrity Manager software for real-time analysis. The data provide relative positioning of several millimeters across the Cascadia subduction zone and its metropolitan regions. These real-time data are used to monitor and mitigate natural hazards arising from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and coastal sea-level hazards.

Sagging Bridges. The data are also used to monitor man-made structures such as Seattle’s sagging Alaska Way Viaduct, the State Route 520 and Interstate 90 floating bridges, and dams throughout the Cascadia subduction zone, including those along the Columbia River. For instance, for the S.R. 520 bridge, PANGA teamed up with Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to monitor movement of the 520 bridges during wind storms and seismic events.

The receivers continuously monitor and record structural deformation with about a millimeter precision. Raw GNSS satellite phase and pseudorange estimates are acquired and processed continuously into receiver positions estimated every 5 seconds and delivered with 10 and 30-second latencies. Daily-averaged receiver positions computed with predicted and post-processed satellite orbit and clock corrections are provided with 1-6 day latencies.


Seattle’s aging Alaska Way viaduct is one of several major man-made structures being monitored by PANGA’s GPS Network. (photos courtesty of CWU Geodesy Lab.)

Tremor Slips. The Northwest is at the forefront of earthquake-related GPS research, in large part because the area provides a lot to learn from GPS monitoring, Flake said. “For example, when we started it was strongly suspected but not definitely known that the Cascadia subduction zone was locked over parts of its surface and a major earthquake threat. Thanks to GPS monitoring we now have a pretty good idea not only exactly where it is locked, but also when parts of it do slip or creep.

“One important discovery made with GPS data, along this line, was that of the Episodic Tremor Slip (ETS) events that occur here in the Northwest U.S.,” Flake said. “Since the time duration of ETS motion takes place on the scale of days to weeks, these earthquake events were unrealized by traditional seismic detection methods.”

GPS data shed light on this peculiarly predictable earthquake phenomenon. “With these GPS data we can measure strain accumulation within the continental crust (where people live) and calculate the residual that can be expected to rebound in a large subduction zone earthquake,” Flake said.

“Even more detailed than that, we can use GPS data from past ETS events to constrain the locked zone of the subducting crustal plate by inferring the amount of slip at depth that best reproduces the observed GPS recordings — important in determining possible magnitude and location of the megathrust earthquakes (Mw = 8 to 9) that will someday occur. This is of obvious concern to society and is a major reason that we lead the geodetic applications of GPS research.”

Data Online. PANGA maintains a website that integrates daily GPS measurements from about 1,500 stations along the Pacific/North American plate boundary, ranging from Alaska to the U.S-Mexico border. Cleaned, network solutions from several arrays are merged and grouped into regional clusters.

Arrow on a Velocity Field Map of Oregon and Washington represent ground motion as measured by GPS at each particular location. The grey circles are 2 sigma error ellipses (click to enlarge.)

Arrow on a Velocity Field Map of Oregon and Washington represent ground motion as measured by GPS at each particular location. The grey circles are 2 sigma error ellipses (click to enlarge.) (photos courtesty of CWU Geodesy Lab.)

 The panga team constructs a bedrock drill-brace geodetic monument at Howard Hanson Dam east of Auburn, Washington.

The PANGA team constructs a bedrock drill-brace geodetic monument at Howard Hanson Dam east of Auburn, Washington. (photos courtesty of CWU Geodesy Lab.)

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.