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Five Things You Probably Didn't Know GPS Could Do |

Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know GPS Could Do | Innovation

Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know GPS Could Do |

You would possibly assume you’re knowledgeable at navigating via town site visitors, smartphone at your aspect. You would possibly even hike with a GPS software to search out your manner during the backcountry. But you’d most definitely nonetheless be shocked at all of the issues that GPS — the worldwide positioning device that underlies all of contemporary navigation — can do.

GPS is composed of a constellation of satellites that ship indicators to Earth’s floor. A fundamental GPS receiver, like the only to your smartphone, determines the place you might be — to inside of about 1 to 10 meters — via measuring the arriving time of indicators from 4 or extra satellites. With fancier (and costlier) GPS receivers, scientists can pinpoint their places right down to centimeters and even millimeters. Using that fine-grained knowledge, along side new tactics to research the indicators, researchers are finding that GPS can inform them way more concerning the planet than they at the beginning concept it would.

Over the decade, quicker and extra correct GPS gadgets have allowed scientists to light up how the bottom strikes throughout giant earthquakes. GPS has led to raised caution programs for herbal screw ups akin to flash floods and volcanic eruptions. And researchers have even MacGyvered some GPS receivers into performing as snow sensors, tide gauges and different sudden gear for measuring Earth.

“People thought I was crazy when I started talking about these applications,” says Kristine Larson, a geophysicist on the University of Colorado Boulder who has led most of the discoveries and wrote about them within the 2019 Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “Well, it turned out we were able to do it.”

Here are some sudden issues scientists have simplest just lately learned they might do with GPS.

1. Feel an earthquake

For centuries geoscientists have trusted seismometers, which measure how a lot the bottom is shaking, to evaluate how giant and the way dangerous an earthquake is. GPS receivers served a distinct goal — to trace geologic processes that occur on a lot slower scales, akin to the speed at which Earth’s nice crustal plates grind previous one some other within the procedure referred to as plate tectonics. So GPS would possibly inform scientists the velocity at which the other aspects of the San Andreas Fault are creeping previous every different, whilst seismometers measure the bottom shaking when that California fault ruptures in a quake.

Most researchers concept that GPS merely couldn’t measure places exactly sufficient, and briefly sufficient, to be helpful in assessing earthquakes. But it seems that scientists can squeeze further knowledge out of the indicators that GPS satellites transmit to Earth.

Those indicators arrive in two elements. One is the original collection of ones and zeros, referred to as the code, that every GPS satellite tv for pc transmits. The 2d is a shorter-wavelength “carrier” sign that transmits the code from the satellite tv for pc. Because the service sign has a shorter wavelength — an insignificant 20 centimeters — when compared with the longer wavelength of the code, which can also be tens or loads of meters, the service sign provides a high-resolution option to pinpoint a place on Earth’s floor. Scientists, surveyors, the army and others continuously desire a very actual GPS location, and all it takes is a extra sophisticated GPS receiver.


Engineers have additionally progressed the speed at which GPS receivers replace their location, which means they may be able to refresh themselves as continuously as 20 occasions a 2d or extra. Once researchers learned they might take actual measurements so briefly, they began the usage of GPS to inspect how the bottom moved throughout an earthquake.

In 2003, in probably the most first research of its type, Larson and her colleagues used GPS receivers studded around the western United States to check how the bottom shifted as seismic waves rippled from a magnitude 7.nine earthquake in Alaska. By 2011, researchers have been in a position to take GPS information at the magnitude nine.1 earthquake that devastated Japan and display that the seafloor had shifted a staggering 60 meters throughout the quake.

Today, scientists are having a look extra extensively at how GPS information can assist them briefly assess earthquakes. Diego Melgar of the University of Oregon in Eugene and Gavin Hayes of the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado, retrospectively studied 12 massive earthquakes to peer if they might inform, inside of seconds of the quake starting, simply how massive it might get. By together with knowledge from GPS stations close to the quakes’ epicenters, the scientists may just decide inside of 10 seconds whether or not the quake could be a dangerous magnitude 7 or an absolutely damaging magnitude nine.

Researchers alongside the U.S. West Coast have even been incorporating GPS into their fledgling earthquake early caution device, which detects flooring shaking and notifies other people in far-off towns whether or not shaking is prone to hit them quickly. And Chile has been construction out its GPS community in an effort to have extra correct knowledge extra briefly, which is able to assist calculate whether or not a quake close to the coast is prone to generate a tsunami or no longer.

2. Monitor a volcano

Beyond earthquakes, the velocity of GPS helps officers reply extra briefly to different herbal screw ups as they spread.

Many volcano observatories, as an example, have GPS receivers arrayed across the mountains they track, as a result of when magma starts transferring underground that continuously reasons the outside to shift as smartly. By tracking how GPS stations round a volcano upward push or sink through the years, researchers can get a greater concept about the place molten rock is flowing.

Before closing 12 months’s giant eruption of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, researchers used GPS to grasp which portions of the volcano have been transferring maximum all of a sudden. Officials used that knowledge to assist come to a decision which spaces to evacuate citizens from.

A GPS station sits at the shores of Kachemak Bay, Alaska (best). Data from this receiver monitor properly with information from a close-by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tide gauge (backside), demonstrating how GPS indicators can be utilized to watch converting water ranges.

GPS information may also be helpful even after a volcano has erupted. Because the indicators trip from satellites to the bottom, they have got to cross via no matter subject matter the volcano is ejecting into the air. In 2013, a number of analysis teams studied GPS information from an eruption of the Redoubt volcano in Alaska 4 years previous and located that the indicators changed into distorted quickly after the eruption started.

By finding out the distortions, the scientists may just estimate how a lot ash had spewed out and how briskly it was once touring. In an resulting paper, Larson referred to as it “a brand new option to discover volcanic plumes.”

She and her colleagues were operating on tactics to try this with smartphone-variety GPS receivers reasonably than dear medical receivers. That may just permit volcanologists to arrange a quite reasonably priced GPS community and track ash plumes as they upward push. Volcanic plumes are a large drawback for airplanes, which must fly across the ash reasonably than chance the debris’ clogging up their jet engines.

three. Probe the snow

Some of essentially the most sudden makes use of of GPS come from the messiest portions of its sign — the portions that soar off the bottom.

A normal GPS receiver, like the only to your smartphone, most commonly choices up indicators which might be coming without delay from GPS satellites overhead. But it additionally choices up indicators that experience bounced at the flooring you’re strolling on and mirrored as much as your smartphone.

For a few years scientists had concept those mirrored indicators have been not anything however noise, a kind of echo that muddied the information and made it exhausting to determine what was once happening. But about 15 years in the past Larson and others started questioning if they might profit from the echoes in medical GPS receivers. She began having a look on the frequencies of the indicators that mirrored off the bottom and the way the ones blended with the indicators that had arrived without delay on the receiver. From that she may just deduce qualities of the outside that the echoes had bounced off. “We just reverse-engineered those echoes,” says Larson.

A rising choice of researchers are the usage of mirrored GPS indicators as far flung sensing gear to check, as an example, Earth’s water cycle. A sign reflecting off naked soil (best proper) has particular qualities, a few of which fluctuate if the sign is bouncing off a snow layer, crops or rainy soil.

This method lets in scientists to be informed concerning the flooring underneath the GPS receiver — as an example how a lot moisture the soil comprises or how a lot snow has collected at the floor. (The extra snow falls at the flooring, the shorter the space between the echo and the receiver.) GPS stations can paintings as snow sensors to measure snow intensity, akin to in mountain spaces the place snowpack is a big water useful resource every 12 months.

The method additionally works smartly within the Arctic and Antarctica, the place there are few climate stations tracking blizzard year-round. Matt Siegfried, now on the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, and his colleagues studied snow accumulation at 23 GPS stations in West Antarctica from 2007 to 2017. They discovered they might without delay measure the converting snow. That’s a very powerful knowledge for researchers having a look to evaluate how a lot snow the Antarctic ice sheet builds up every wintry weather — and the way that compares with what melts away every summer season.

four. Sense a sinking

GPS will have began off in an effort to measure location on cast flooring, but it surely seems to be additionally helpful in tracking adjustments in water ranges.

In July, John Galetzka, an engineer on the UNAVCO geophysics analysis group in Boulder, Colorado, discovered himself putting in GPS stations in Bangladesh, on the junction of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. The objective was once to measure whether or not the river sediments are compacting and the land is slowly sinking — making it extra prone to flooding throughout tropical cyclones and sea stage upward push. “GPS is an amazing tool to help answer this question and more,” Galetzka says.

In a farming group referred to as Sonatala, at the fringe of a mangrove woodland, Galetzka and his colleagues positioned one GPS station at the concrete roof of a number one college. They arrange a 2d station close by, atop a rod hammered right into a rice paddy. If the bottom actually is sinking, then the second one GPS station will glance as whether it is slowly rising from the bottom. And via measuring the GPS echoes underneath the stations, the scientists can measure elements akin to how a lot water is status within the rice paddy throughout the wet season.

GPS receivers may even assist oceanographers and mariners, via performing as tide gauges. Larson stumbled onto this whilst operating with GPS information from Kachemak Bay, Alaska. The station was once established to check tectonic deformation, however Larson was once curious for the reason that bay additionally has one of the most greatest tidal permutations within the United States. She seemed on the GPS indicators that have been bouncing off the water and as much as the receiver, and was once in a position to trace tidal adjustments nearly as as it should be as an actual tide gauge in a close-by harbor.

This might be useful in portions of the arena that don’t have long-term tide gauges arrange — however do occur to have a GPS station close by.

Villagers from Sonatala, a farming group in Bangladesh, dig a trench for a GPS antenna cable. The put in GPS stations will assist track the water desk within the area, which is prone to flooding.

(John Galetzka/UNAVCO)

five. Analyze the ambience

Finally, GPS can tease out details about the sky overhead, in ways in which scientists hadn’t concept imaginable till only a few years in the past. Water vapor, electrically charged debris, and different elements can prolong GPS indicators touring during the setting, and that permits researchers to make new discoveries.

One crew of scientists makes use of GPS to check the volume of water vapor within the setting this is to be had to precipitate out as rain or snow. Researchers have used those adjustments to calculate how a lot water is prone to fall from the sky in drenching downpours, permitting forecasters to fine-tune their predictions of flash floods in puts like Southern California. During a July 2013 hurricane, meteorologists used GPS information to trace monsoonal moisture transferring onshore there, which became out to be a very powerful knowledge for issuing a caution 17 mins earlier than flash floods hit.

GPS indicators also are affected once they trip during the electrically charged a part of the higher setting, referred to as the ionosphere. Scientists have used GPS information to trace adjustments within the ionosphere as tsunamis race around the ocean under. (The power of the tsunami produces adjustments within the setting that ripple all of the manner as much as the ionosphere.) This method may just someday supplement the standard way of tsunami caution, which makes use of buoys dotted around the ocean to measure the peak of the touring wave.

And scientists have even been in a position to check the consequences of a complete sun eclipse the usage of GPS. In August 2017, they used GPS stations around the United States to measure how the choice of electrons within the higher setting dropped because the moon’s shadow moved around the continent, dimming the sunshine that differently created electrons.

So GPS comes in handy for the entirety from flooring shaking underneath your ft to snow falling from the sky. Not dangerous for one thing that was once simply meant that can assist you to find your manner throughout the city.


This article at the beginning gave the impression in Knowable Magazine, an unbiased journalistic undertaking from nonprofit writer Annual Reviews.

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