When the Earth Quakes

For more than two decades, GNSS has played a central role in understanding the movement of the Earth’s surface. Today, GNSS helps plan, manage, and respond to seismic emergencies.
By John Stenmark, LS
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reported that in 2011 we experienced more than 2,420 earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 or larger worldwide. That’s 10% more than in 2010 and more than 30% higher than the average over the previous 10-year period. At the same time, global population has increasingly concentrated in urban centers, many of which are located in known hazard zones. Aging infrastructure in many urban centers increases the potential impact of any hazardous event. To mitigate the risk, scientists are using GNSS to develop an increased understanding of the motion of Earth’s tectonic plates. This knowledge enables emergency managers to reduce damage and improve emergency response.

A Valuable New Tool

In 1915, German meteorologist Alfred Wegner proposed the hypothesis of continental drift. Using geologic and fossil evidence, Wegner showed that the Earth’s continents were moving. But Wegner’s ideas were not generally accepted because there was no knowledge of an underlying mechanism that would cause the motion. 
This has changed since the 1960s, when the theory of plate tectonics emerged to describe the relative motion of the large plates that make up the Earth’s crust. Plate tectonics identified the boundaries of the major plates and explained how earthquakes result from motion and buildup of stress along the boundaries between adjacent plates.
On most days, the relative motion between two plates is imperceptible. But over time, the motion becomes apparent through deformation of surface features in both the vertical and horizontal planes. By measuring the slow surface motion, geophysicists could better understand the forces at work deep underground. Attempts to measure this slow tectonic motion relied initially on local surveys and observations using optical instruments and later using long-range geodetic observations such as very long baseline interferometry (VLBI). 
In the 1980s, geophysicists embraced the newly minted GPS technology as a way to measure plate motion. The scientists initiated campaigns to measure the position of numerous points in a given region. They remeasured the same points in subsequent years, comparing the results to determine surface motion at each point. Because of the value of the GPS data, the geophysical community became one of the driving forces in the development of equipment and techniques for high-precision GPS measurements.
Use of GPS for plate tectonics and earthquake science gathered steam following the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in California. The quake struck the San Francisco Bay area and resulted in 68 deaths and $6 billion in damage. Prior to the quake, USGS geophysicist Will Prescott and Jim Savage had conducted frequent GPS campaigns in the area where the quake occurred. Following the event, with assistance from Ken Hudnut and others, USGS remeasured the points and computed the vector offsets and surface motion. From there, they could infer the pattern of slip on the fault plane that broke in the quake and track readjustments in the fault afterwards. It was an important advance in earthquake science and could not have happened without GPS. 
Since Loma Prieta, GNSS equipment has become smaller and more precise. And through the geodetic responses to numerous significant global earthquakes, researchers have perfected the field and computational GNSS techniques needed for seismic studies.

Measuring Tectonic Motion

Geophysicists describe three types of seismic motion related to the Earth’s plates. Interseismic motion is the ongoing slow, elastic movement of plates that occurs between large earthquakes, without movement on the fault itself. Coseismic motion, caused by excessive stress from this movement, is visible in the shaking and rapid displacement of the surface during an earthquake and its aftershocks.
Following an earthquake event, the fault experiences postseismic motion, in which the stresses around the fault are redistributed or released as a result of the changes caused by the quake. In some cases, postseismic surface motion can be more than 1 cm (0.03 ft) per day as the fault settles into its new normal state. Then the interseismic motion resumes, and the cycle repeats.
For decades, researchers have used seismic sensors to detect the Earth’s surface motion. In concept, a seismometer consists of a housing attached to the earth. Inside the housing, a mass is suspended on a spring. When the earth moves, the housing moves with it. But the mass, isolated by the spring, tends not to move. This enables the seismometer to measure the velocity of the ground relative to the stationary mass.
Different seismometers are calibrated to detect different types of motion and are especially useful at higher frequencies where the earth is shaking at 1 Hz or faster. While seismometers excel at measuring the magnitude and frequency of even tiny movements, they can’t determine the overall direction or distance moved, and they tend to stop working or saturate during very large displacements.
That’s where GNSS comes in. GNSS can measure the long, slow interseismic motion with high precision. It can also capture the rapid changes that occur during the coseismic earthquake event. According to USGS Geophysicist Ken Hudnut, these GNSS capabilities make it a valuable tool in seismic studies. “The biggest things we’ve learned from GNSS are in the areas where there is really no other suitable sensor technology,” Hudnut said. “For plate tectonic movements, and for the buildup of strain before an earthquake and the postseismic movement after an earthquake occurs, GNSS is unique.”
Geophysicists measure with GNSS in two ways. They use “campaign GNSS” to periodically measure designated points over long periods. For example, a team will visit a point once per year to collect hours (or days) of static GNSS observations. With this approach, it is possible to measure interseismic motion at a relatively large number of points in a given area over a number of years. This provides a detailed picture of the surface motion near a known fault and helps scientists estimate the stresses accumulating deep underground.
Immediately after an earthquake, teams attempt to recover and remeasure as many campaign points as possible. The data lets them develop an accurate picture of the coseismic motion. Timely measurement is important, as postseismic motion provides important clues about the behavior of the fault. Following an earthquake, scientists want to measure as many campaign points as possible before the coseismic motion is masked by postseismic movement.
To facilitate this rapid response, UNAVCO (Boulder, Colorado), the University of Hawaii, The Ohio State University, and others have developed GNSS campaign kits designed for rapid deployment to earthquake zones. (In response to the 2010 Maule earthquake in Chile, UNAVCO supplied 25 campaign kits to research teams, and Trimble donated nine Trimble NetRS reference stations.) The campaign kits contain dual-frequency, survey-grade GNSS receivers with geodetic antennas as well as power supplies and communications equipment to support continuous, unattended operation. These systems were coupled with rapidly deployable monuments and power and communications systems developed at the University of Hawaii and Ohio State. The equipment allowed researchers from these organizations to respond to the earthquake within days.
The second method used by geophysicists employs continuously operating reference stations (CORS) that capture and record GNSS data. A CORS site includes a permanently installed GNSS receiver together with power and communications equipment. Data from multiple CORS can be collected and processed to provide precise information on the continuous motion of the GNSS sensors. In some regions, scientific organizations have established CORS networks for research in geophysical, atmospheric, or other sciences. In other locales, governments or private firms install CORS to provide reference frames for positioning needs in surveying, construction, agriculture, and other commercial applications. 
In many areas, multiple CORS are connected into a real-time network (RTN) that receives a continuous stream of data from the individual CORS. The RTN combines the information from the multiple CORS to compute relative positions of each CORS, updating the positions as often as several times each second. This rapid update allows the RTN to capture coseismic shaking in real time. The RTN also distributes reference information that enables individual GNSS rovers to compute their own positions with high precision.
The CORS stations serve two functions. For the geophysicists, they can measure all three types of seismic motion, thus providing a detailed picture of movement before, during, and after an earthquake. The second function of CORS is to provide geodetic reference points that can be used by scientists, surveyors, and emergency responders following a disaster. While these three groups have different functions and goals, they all require an accurate reference frame for their positioning operations. 

Complementary Approaches

In New Zealand, John Beavan is a crustal dynamics geophysicist at GNS Science, a Crown Research Institute. Beavan, who has used GNSS for decades, says that the campaign and CORS approaches are complementary. In areas of low strain, campaign GNSS is sufficient to take measurements over periods of years. It’s an accurate and cost-effective way to provide precise data on the slow surface motion. Seismically active or densely populated areas benefit from CORS observations.
Beavan said that Japan stands out in its GNSS monitoring; Japan’s Geospatial Information Authority is considered one of the best GNSS monitoring networks in the world. Taiwan and western North America have well-developed networks as well. In China, the Crustal Movement Observation Network of China (CMONOC) has more than 260 monitoring stations in place using Trimble NetR8 GNSS reference receivers. When the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck eastern Japan in March 2011, CMONOC receivers, as far as 600 mi (1,000 km) from the epicenter, revealed local coseismic displacements of 0.02 to 0.12 ft (5 to 36 mm).
Other regions, including Indonesia and parts of South America, have nascent networks in place, including some real-time networks. But to better protect their populations and economic infrastructures, these areas need to increase the number of permanent GNSS stations.
Science and the Surveyor
CORS networks are often integrated with scientific and commercial applications. In Washington, the Washington State Reference Network (WSRN) is a statewide cooperative made up of more than 100 GPS and GNSS reference stations. WSRN uses Trimble VRS technology to provide real-time positioning services for surveying and other high-precision positioning users. The WSRN receivers also form part of the Pacific Northwest Geodetic Array (PANGA), a network of approximately 350 CORS in the Pacific Northwest managed by the Geodesy Lab at Central Washington University. PANGA data is available to surveyors and other commercial users. Similarly, UNAVCO’s Plate Boundary Observatory (PBO) operates more than 1,100 GNSS reference stations in a network concentrating on 11 western states plus Alaska and Puerto Rico. PBO provides free access to PBO data products.
Back in New Zealand, John Beavan explained how GNS Science and New Zealand’s Earthquake Commission established the GeoNet project to provide a modern geological hazard monitoring system. GeoNet is a network of geophysical instruments (including GNSS, seismometers, and other geophysical instruments) and specialized software to detect, analyze, and respond to seismic activity. The GNSS network is made up of more than 180 Trimble NetR9 and NetRS GNSS reference receivers. GNS Science operates GeoNet in collaboration with Land Information New Zealand (LINZ), the national department for geodetic and cadastral surveys. LINZ uses GNSS data from roughly 40 GeoNet CORS as part of its PositioNZ control network, making the data available for post-processed and real-time positioning. Additionally, iBASE, a privately-operated RTN, uses data from PositioNZ and Trimble VRS3Net App to provide real-time, centimeter-level positioning in 16 regions throughout the country.
GeoNet, LINZ, and iBASE cooperate to address scientific, engineering, and humanitarian needs, and GeoNet played a key role in emergency response to the 2010 and 2011 quakes. The GNSS network also helped determine the extent of horizontal ground movement, uplift, and subsidence resulting from the quakes. (For more on the New Zealand quakes, see PSM’s March 2012 feature.)

Earthquakes in California

Over the past decade, the increasingly dense GNSS networks have enabled deeper understanding of seismic activity on the faults and plate boundaries. Researchers combine GNSS data with historical reports of past earthquakes to make calculations on stresses accumulating on the faults. From there, it’s possible to develop estimates on the strength of future quakes. These estimates, often presented as seismic hazard maps, indicate the amount of surface shaking from an earthquake at various probability levels. But there is no way to predict when or where an earthquake will occur with any useful certainty. The best we can do is to understand the risk and be prepared for the unexpected. An agency in California is doing just that.
The California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA) is tasked to enhance safety and preparedness against natural disasters. California faces threats from multiple natural sources including earthquakes, wildfires, landslides, and tsunamis. Cal EMA works closely with emergency managers, scientists, and engineers to understand risks and plan for emergency response. With hundreds of CORS providing real-time data, California is one of the most closely monitored locations on the planet.
Cal EMA program deputy Kate Long said that the seismic research helps reduce casualties and damage from earthquakes. It’s no accident that Cal EMA’s Earthquake and Tsunami (ET) program office is housed at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), alongside the USGS and other seismic experts. “We need the information for planning,” Long said. “If the scientists are seeing areas of significant displacement, we are interested in that.”
Jim Goltz, who recently retired as ET program manager and still works at the Caltech facility, described how a group of nine scientists, called the California Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council (CEPEC), uses the information. Any time there is anomalous seismic activity in the state, Cal EMA can consult with CEPEC to look at the data and consider the risks.
When an earthquake does strike, Cal EMA increases its reliance on GNSS data. Long and Goltz are part of the emergency mobilization center at Caltech where they see the seismic and GNSS information as soon as it is available. Their job is to translate the science into actionable data for decision makers. “The response from the geodetic network has its greatest value in the first few minutes and hours after an event,” Goltz said.
During an earthquake, the largest motion may not occur along the fault. Landslides, subsidence, and liquefaction can produce larger displacements than those observed along a fault line. Real-time GNSS networks can indentify the motion and deliver the data to emergency teams. That information is used to make decisions on deployment of emergency resources. For example, Cal EMA can direct reconnaissance teams to specific locations to check for damage to lifelines such as water and gas mains, roadways, and communications facilities. “In the first few hours, we need to cut through the confusion,” Long said. “We need to establish ground truth in the affected areas. Then we can pinpoint and deploy resources to the most acute problems.” 

A Stable Future

Both Goltz and Beavan look to an increased role of GNSS in earthquake studies and mitigation. One promising application uses GNSS to issue early warnings for tsunamis. A series of GNSS sensors along a coastline can detect an earthquake offshore, even it if isn’t felt by local residents. The GNSS data can let officials issue alerts quickly after a tsunami-generating quake, giving residents valuable time to move to higher ground.
While the knowledge base of plate tectonics and seismic activity continues to grow, it remains impossible to predict when or where an earthquake will strike. “There is no certainty,” Beavan said. “The best we can do is to say there is an x percent probability that a magnitude y quake will occur in a certain geographic region in the next n years.” While this seems quite nebulous, it is a big improvement over years past. We can’t predict earthquakes, but we can certainly be better prepared for them.

John Stenmark, LS, is a writer and consultant working in the AEC and technical industries. He has over 20 years experience in applying advanced technology to surveying and related disciplines.


After the Disaster
“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” —Dwight Eisenhower

When a disaster strikes, surveyors and positioning professionals shift roles rapidly. Monitoring, mapping, and planning give way to the work of providing information and support to response teams and managers. Here are some examples.

Victoria Bush Fires, Australia, 2009

In the midst of a 10-year drought and record-breaking heat wave, multiple wildfires erupted in the state of Victoria. On February 7, the fires decimated entire towns and communities. When the fires finally subsided (some burned for nearly one month), more than 2,000 homes had been destroyed and 173 people killed. It was the deadliest natural disaster in Australian history.
Because homes, mailboxes, street signs, and other identifying marks had been reduced to ash, it was impossible to assess the damage and account for missing people. The Victoria police enlisted the aid of the Mapping and Planning Support (MAPS) team from the Australia Capital Territory Emergency Services Agency. The MAPS technicians used Trimble Juno SC handheld field computers with integrated GPS to capture damage assessment data. The information included the location of buildings, their conditions, and whether any victims were found. Data was sent via cellular connection to a server in Melbourne. The real-time updates allowed search managers to direct resources to locations where they were most urgently needed.

Wenchuan Earthquake, China, 2008

On May 12, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck in Sichuan Province, killing more than 70,000 people and collapsing thousands of buildings. With national and international aid pouring in, the Chinese authorities needed to work on both immediate needs and longer-term activities related the massive reconstruction.

The quake had devastated Sichuan’s network of survey and geodetic control points, and the province needed to quickly repair its geodetic reference network. Just days after the quake, the Sichuan Province Surveying and Mapping Bureau (SCBSM) went to work to rebuild the geodetic infrastructure. Working amidst rubble, collapsed highways, and frequent aftershocks, SCBSM provided control for aerial photography needed to catalog damage. They then developed a plan to install 20 GNSS CORS using Trimble NetR3 GNSS reference sensors. The CORS connected to a new data center with servers running Trimble RTKNet and GPSNet software. In roughly four months, the new network (and its associated power and communications facilities) had been constructed, tested, and opened for operation.

Oregon Landslide, USA, 2008

In early winter, a landslide in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon demolished 60 acres forest. The slide also destroyed approximately 1,600 feet of railroad track, disrupting two primary rail routes and a key passenger train corridor. Fortunately, there was no loss of life. But the track needed to be reconstructed as quickly as possible. 
Engineers and survey crews arrived in less than 24 hours. The work would entail typical construction surveying: topographic maps, stakeout, slope staking, and as-builts. Most of the work took place in difficult winter conditions, and the surveyors endured snow, cold rain, and bottomless mud while working at the remote location. Survey crews from Wilson & Company used Trimble R8 GNSS systems for roughly 90% of the work, switching to total stations when the surveys moved into the thick forest.
In addition to construction surveys, the crews provided assistance to the geologists and hydrologists who were working to understand the cause of the slide and prevent a reoccurrence. The surveyors located monitoring wells and areas where water emerged from the natural hillside. The landslide was slow to stabilize, and workers frequently had to scramble to avoid rocks and debris oozing down the steep slope. Just 105 days after the landslide struck, the trains began traveling on the newly constructed track. (See our feature article in March 2009 for details.)

Hurricane Katrina, USA, 2005

The first surveyors to arrive in New Orleans the day after Katrina struck faced a nightmare of challenges. Large portions of the city were flooded, electric power was out, and roads that had not washed out were littered with debris. The regional GNSS positioning network, GULFNet, had been hit hard. Some stations had blown down, while others had lost power. Knowing that accurate positioning would be critical for emergency response, the network’s operator, Louisiana State University, supported a team of staff and volunteers to restore the network. Within two weeks, the entire network was operational.
GULFNet provided reference data for early damage assessment surveys conducted with airborne lidar and photography. As the water receded, teams used static GNSS to install new control points to serve as RTK base stations in the devastated neighborhoods. The disaster response work included hydrographic surveys and assessments of thousands of historic buildings to determine the need for repair or demolition.

Mount St. Helens, USA, on-going

Since its explosive eruption in May 1980, the Mount St. Helens volcano has held the attention of scientists and emergency managers. Emergency concerns in the region include evacuation routes, mudflows, flooding, and landslides as well as airborne ash and debris. Seismic and positioning sensors are in place to detect tiny changes that may be precursors to a large event. If new magma is entering the volcano at depth, the mountain’s slopes may start to move outward. The more magma, the greater the risk of eruption.
A network of 14 Trimble GNSS receivers set by USGS and PBO provides continuous observation of St. Helens and nearby terrain. These GPS measurements can detect motion of just a few millimeters a month. Campaign GPS supplements the network and provides deformation data at approximately 50 locations on the sides of the volcano.
While there have not been any large events since 1980, St. Helens continues to flex its considerable muscle. In 2004, magma flows began to build a lava dome in the volcano crater. USGS scientists can’t tell if this activity is a continuation of the 1980 eruption or if it represents a new flow of magma from far beneath the Earth’s surface. Either way, it bears watching. 

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