New study shows GPS data can predict large earthquakes earlier

Scientists discover how to predict megaquakes earlier to improve warning systems.

New study shows GPS data can predict large earthquakes earlier

Firefighters putting out an earthquake-caused fire on July 6, 2019 in Ridgecrest, California.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
  • Earthquakes of 7+ magnitude share a particular pattern, find seismologists.
  • The pored over data of over 3,000 earthquakes to spot a "slip pulse".
  • The scientists advocate using real-time GPS sensor data in early warning systems.


As the 2019 California earthquakes remind us, these natural events can be quite nerve-racking and dangerous. Potential for terrible destruction is always just a tremor away. That's probably the worst thing about earthquakes – they come out of nowhere and cause the most mayhem simply because of their sheer suddenness. Predicting earthquakes would save lives and property, and a recent study hopes to accomplish just that.

Seismologists Diego Melgar and his colleague Gavin P. Hayes were at first looking for databases to simulate the magnitude 9+ Cascadia megaquake of 1700. But they ended up discovering a very peculiar pattern. They employed data collections of earthquakes going back to the early 1990s and their background in geophysics to spot a specific moment, happening 10-15 seconds into an earthquake event. That moment, derived from GPS data, can indicate a quake of magnitude 7 or larger.

The scientists used GPS information, in particular, because it caught even the smallest initial movements along a fault, showing the strongest acceleration of ground movement. The seismologists identified a pattern in the data called "a slip pulse" that happened during the transition period, when displacement between two plates was taking place. The top rate of that displacement predicted if the quake would be small or go mega, found the researchers.

How did they know they were on the right track? The scientists performed physics-heavy analysis of numerous databases of 3,000+ earthquakes to confirm their methodology. They correctly picked out all 12 quakes of 7+ magnitude from the early 1990s till now in two U.S. Geological Survey databases. They also hit upon the same pattern in European and Chinese databases, reports a University of Oregon press release.

"It was super exciting," shared Melgar. "As Gavin and I pored through the data for what were really unrelated reasons, we began to see these trends. We had a bit of a eureka moment where we, well, if what we're seeing is true, it means something about how earthquakes start."

Vehicles driving over a crack on Highway 178, near Trona. This follows a 6.4-magnitude earthquake in Ridgecrest, California on July 4, 2019.

Credit: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

The scientists think their research can lead to a greater amount of GPS stations to improve early warning system, especially ShakeAlert, along the West Coast. The sensors can be placed on the seafloor to counter the delay in relaying valuable quake information.

"We can do a lot with GPS stations on land along the coasts of Oregon and Washington, but it comes with a delay," Melgar explained. "As an earthquake starts, it would take some time for information about the motion of the fault to reach coastal stations. That delay would impact when a warning could be issued. People on the coast would get no warning because they are in a blind zone."

Melgar's previous work on real-time GPS data found it could give an extra 20 minutes of warning in cases of tsunamis.

Diego Melgar is a researcher at the University of Oregon, while Gavin P. Hayes is a seismologist with the USGS National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado.

Read their study in Science Advances.

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

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  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

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