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Seismic breakthroughs

Seismic breakthroughs

GPS velocity maps like this one provide data about the motion between the North American and Caribbean plates that could save lives and property.

Administrative duties often keep Pamela Jansma close to her office as dean of the College of Science, but soon she will be as up to date on earthquake information as those out in the field.

Geological data from the Caribbean will come to her, fellow researchers, UT Arlington students, and anyone interested in the earth-moving details via COCONet, the Continuously Operating Caribbean GPS Natural Hazards Observational Network.

The National Science Foundation created COCONet after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The network will establish 50 permanent sites for continuously recording instruments throughout the Caribbean to augment 62 existing sites. Data will be collected with help from the global positioning system and sent to a central archive.

Pamela Jansma

Pamela Jansma, College of Science dean

Dr. Jansma specializes in neo-tectonics, examining the movement of Earth’s crust to find ways of predicting earthquakes. She and earth and environmental sciences Professor Glen Mattioli collaborated with researchers at other universities to determine what triggered the Haiti quake. COCONet will provide more data to more researchers in more fields—all free.

“When people were starting to understand GPS advantages, researchers only collected data in the field every now and then,” Jansma says. “We were systematic about it. We always wanted to go at the same time of year because of the atmospheric conditions. But we only had a few days of data every year.”

“We're trying to understand the things that happen immediately before an earthquake so things can be done to minimize destruction or loss of life.”

Most people know GPS as a system that tells how to get from point A to point B. The space-based satellite navigation system provides location and time information in all weather, anywhere on Earth.

“When the first continuous sites went in, we downloaded information every day,” Jansma notes. “We started seeing patterns that were seasonal or daily that we didn’t know existed. It really changed the field once we had these permanent sites.”

Those daily and seasonal cycles have made GPS data useful to people who study other natural phenomena, in addition to those who examine tectonic plate movement.

“With the GPS data, it is becoming increasingly important to meteorological applications, hurricane forecasting in particular. That’s something that we in our field would not have thought to do.”

COCONet provides a central management system where every nation can upload data from research sites in the Caribbean. The data is stored in a communal archive at UNAVCO, a National Science Foundation and NASA-funded organization based in Boulder, Colo. UNAVCO is a nonprofit, university-governed consortium with more than 100 academic members committed to advancing research and education using geodesy, the branch of earth sciences focused on earth measurements.

Back in Arlington, Jansma is preparing for instant access to data about the motion between the Caribbean and North American plates. In the end, the numbers and statistics will help save lives and property.

“We’re trying to understand the things that happen immediately before an earthquake so things can be done to minimize destruction or loss of life,” she says. “Ultimately it would be great if we could say there will be an earthquake tomorrow at 10 o’clock, but I don’t know if we’ll ever get there.”