Catching the movementEarth plate observatory may find answers
Ken Austin and Katrin Hafner, engineers and geologists for the UNAVCO Plate Boundary Observatory have installed over 70 measuring stations like this one in the Northwest and are in charge of maintaining them. By the end of 2008 134 stations are planned for the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Joe Whiteside/Daily Record

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Geologists and Ellensburg residents Katrin Hafner and Ken Austin are part of a huge, 15-year quest to observe and record the movement of large portions of the Earth's crust to discover how and when tectonic plates release tension and strain along their boundaries - sometimes in the form of destructive earthquakes.

They and others are working to install and maintain a system of 852 high-tech, geodetic motion sensors in 11 western U.S. states that, when completed in September 2008, will be one of the largest global-positioning system arrays in the world, for sure the biggest network in North America.

"I really believe in this project," said Hafner, a regional engineer and manager of the UNAVCO Plate Boundary Observatory office in Ellensburg. "It's a real challenge to get this system built and operating. I get to use my management and my scientific skills at the same time. It's been exciting to be on the ground floor of a major research project like this.

"Yet it's also a real team effort. We use everyone's strengths to get the job done."

Austin, senior field engineer in the Ellensburg office, is a graduate of Central Washington University and the University of Southern California where he received a master's in geophysics.

"I really love the science of all this," Austin said. "I've worked with GPS (global positioning system) data before, but this will give us a much more comprehensive look at how much movement we have at the plate boundaries."

Once all stations are in, UNAVCO will maintain and operate the observatory through 2017. The data collected is available online.

Earthscope

The National Science Foundation, with a $200 million allocation from the federal government in 2003, began the three-part Earthscope project of seismic sensing and the measurement of plate boundary movements.

The geodetic task of Earthscope - developing a plate boundary observatory with 852 measuring stations - was given to University Navstar Consortium Inc. or UNAVCO, a Boulder, Colo., company that deploys GPS equipment to assist in geologic studies.

Five regional UNAVCO offices, including the one in Ellensburg, handle the installation of the stations, which include an antenna to receive signals from GPS satellites and a small, connected box about 20 feet away. The box houses the system's receiver-computer, batteries and other electronics.

The dome-shaped antennas to receive GPS signals are perched on four metal legs anchored deep into the ground. A station also may include a solar panel next to the receiver to power the unit.

A GPS measurement is taken every 15 seconds by each of the stations. This data, showing minute movements over time, is downloaded and transmitted to Boulder every hour. The 16 stations around Mount St. Helens transmit data hourly.

Hafner, also a geologist, said it has been calculated that Western Washington, up against a major plate, is moving to the northeast by 1 1/2 inches per year.

High-tech

The Ellensburg office, which opened in 2004, is responsible for installing 134 stations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. So far, 77 have been put in and are operating, sending streams of data daily to UNAVCO in Colorado. The closest station to Kittitas County is above the Nile Valley near Naches.

"The way we do geology has changed dramatically in past years," Hafner said. "It's less getting out their with a rock hammer in the field and more application of sometimes pretty sophisticated technology."

Data from the stations is transmitted in three ways depending on location and other factors: via a signal to satellite Internet, cell phone hookups or by radio signals.

"We are using the latest technology," Hafner said. "We are pushing the limits of what we can do to get the most reliable data in the least expensive way. We are on the cutting edge of what's available."

A quest for answers

One of the major questions the GPS data from the observatory may answer is whether there are characteristic movements of plates before, during or after a seismic event - an earthquake or volcanic activity.

Such movements may become flags geologists can use that may give warning about a coming release of energy - an earthquake - the result of sudden plate shifting that releases pent up plate tension.

"Is there something there we can measure, something that signals that an event may occur? That's a big question," geologist Katrin Hafner said.

Geologist Ken Austin said it's not often that geologists can get a nearly real-time look at plate movement on such a grand scale.

"We've not been able to see the big picture in the past, but now we can with the observatory."

Project data is available online

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