This could be a huge deal.
Scientists have found that tiny changes in GPS signals could allow us to predict large earthquakes roughly two hours in advance, a potentially livesaving new way of mitigating disasters.
The team analyzed GPS data from 90 large earthquakes, of magnitude 7 and above, and found evidence for a preceding phase in which the fault lines of tectonic plates start slipping, eventually resulting in powerful tremors.
While we've found ways to predict the imminent eruption of volcanoes, earthquakes have remained notoriously difficult to anticipate.
"The existence of an observable precursory phase of slip on the fault before large earthquakes has been debated for decades," Université Côte d'Azur earthquake researchers Jean-Mathieu Nocquet and Quentin Bletery write in a new paper about the research published in the journal Science.
The Big One
Previous efforts have failed to accurately predict major earthquakes, in large part due to the fact that we don't fully understand the connection between these signals and actual seismic activity. Many of these signals "do not directly precede earthquakes, are not seen before most events, and are also commonly observed without being followed by earthquakes," the paper reads.
But by analyzing observed slips in GPS data taken by some 3,000 stations across the globe, the two researchers found a roughly two-hour-long "exponential acceleration of slip before the ruptures, suggesting that large earthquakes start with a precursory phase of slip."
In other words, we may have just stumbled upon a reliable way to give residents substantial advanced notice.
"If it can be confirmed that earthquake nucleation often involves an hours-long precursory phase, and the means can be developed to reliably measure it, a precursor warning could be issued," University of California, Berkeley, seismologist Roland Bürgmann wrote in an accompanying piece for Science.
But more research still needs to be done until we can confidently say we've discovered a new way to predict the next big quake.
For one, we still aren't entirely certain whether we could actually measure these precursor slips to "provide a useful warning," as Bürgmann argued. "It will be important to fully explore how often similar slow slip episodes occur as false starts, without being followed by earthquakes."
The data could nonetheless prove useful if "integrated into automated earthquake early-warning systems," he added, allowing scientists to let people know that "it is time to let go of sharp utensils and get ready to 'Drop, Cover, and Hold On,' before the Big One strikes."
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