For at least two decades, GPS experts, geodesists, and public agencies have been working together to develop high-accuracy, large-scale continuously operating GPS reference stations that provide them the capability to monitor and model crustal deformation, tectonic plate movement, and the effects of geohazards such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Now, GNSS-augmented advance warning systems are going into place that can give us a crucial margin of safety in the event of an earthquake.

And none too soon.

The latest Updated National Seismic Hazard Maps recently released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) indicate a higher level of earthquake risk for the West Coast and some areas of the Midwest and East Coast then previously thought. (See the related news article in this issue on page 18.) In the next 30 years, the USGS says, California has a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake, and the Pacific Northwest has a 10 percent chance of a magnitude 8 to 9 megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone.

GNSS and Geohazards

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated the average annualized loss from earthquakes nationwide to be $5.3 billion. According to FEMA, 77 percent of that figure ($4.1 billion) comes from California, Washington, and Oregon, with 66 percent ($3.5 billion) from California alone.

So, an ongoing effort by the USGS and partner agencies and institutions to establish a West Coast Earthquake Early Warning (WC-EEW) system as the prototype for an eventual nationwide “ShakeAlert” system seems especially timely. 
The early warning system exploits physical characteristics of earthquakes, which generate two main types of waves: rapidly moving primary or P-waves and the slower secondary (S) and surface waves that cause more intense and damaging ground shaking. (See accompanying figure.)

By detecting and analyzing the location and magnitude of an earthquake reflected in the P-wave energy, expected ground-shaking levels across a region can be estimated and warnings sent to local populations before more damaging shaking arrives with or after the S-wave. The advanced warning can range from seconds up to more than a minute, depending on the distance an affected area is from the earthquake’s origin.

Ken Hudnut, a geophysicist at the USGS Earthquake Science Center in Pasadena, California, and chair of the GNSS Working Group for the WC-EEW, has a long history in working in the area of geohazards. Dr. Hudnut received an A.B. degree in Earth sciences from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. in geology from Columbia University. Before joining the USGS in 1992, he was a post-doctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology Seismological Laboratory and currently is a visiting associate in geophysics on the faculty of the California Institute of Technology.

We called on Dr. Hudnut to discuss the state of the art in seismic science and the role of GNSS in that research and in the design and operation of earthquake early warning systems.