Large Earthquakes Pose GPS Headaches

Scientific research requires delicate, highly precise measurements not needed in everyday life. The scale in a scientific lab, for instance, is much more accurate and sensitive than the one in my bathroom. I avoid science labs for this reason. If my bathroom scale reports I’m ten pounds lighter than I actually am, I’m cool with that.

Science relies heavily on Global Positioning Systems to calculate satellite orbits, tectonic plate movements and other measurements where tiny errors can mean the difference between a satellite remaining in orbit or crashing to Earth in a fiery ball of failed telecommunication arrays. I, on the other hand, use GPS to get hopelessly lost in large urban centers.

GPS Stations in Motion

Unfortunately for scientists, large scale earthquakes can move GPS ground stations. An 8.0 magnitude earthquake thousands of miles away can move the earth’s crust up to a tenth of an inch. If a GPS ground system happens to be located on that tenth of an inch, it’s moved slightly.

This isn’t a problem for drivers and hikers using GPS. My car’s GPS will still give me accurate directions to pick up my international transcripts. But for a scientist needing to measure large distances with precision, these slight variations are significant. A tenth of an inch off can throw a satellite out of orbit, or invalidate sea level measurements.

It’s not just one or two GPS stations either. With the exception of Australia, the eastern edge of Canada and Western Europe, large earthquakes have affected all other ground stations. For some, this has happened several times.

GPS measurements rely on consistent distances between the massive network of ground stations and satellites. While these earthquake-caused changes need correcting, that’s a time consuming and expensive proposition.

Even worst, once ground station locations are recalculated, the entire system will require constant monitoring. After each large earthquake, every ground station within range of the quake will need recalibrating.

What’s It to Me?

Now, as an average guy, I have to wonder how much my life will change given a few tiny shifts in the Earth’s crust. My car’s GPS will still work accurately, even if my inability to complete simple instructions like “turn left” tends to render it useless.

The fact is, those tiny variations could have a significant impact on your daily life. We rely on satellites for communication, Internet connections, weather reports and television. A tiny error in orbital calculations can leave a satellite drifting aimlessly in space, unable to connect with ground stations.

The result could be as irritating as cell phone outages or as disastrous as losing satellite signals just before the first episode of next season’s Game of Thrones airs. Without accurate GPS ground station locations, we’re probably going to have a few communication hiccups.

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