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GPS Data and Earthquake Hazard - for Introductory Geoscience Students



Students learn to read GPS timeseries to calculate velocities and then analyze what the changing velocity across Cascadia means for earthquake hazard.



Introductory undergraduate geoscience, geohazards, or environmental geology class.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students have already had introduction to plate tectonics.

How the activity is
situated in the course

Most likely this activity would be done during the earthquakes section of the course. Could also work in conjunction with plate tectonics. It can be done as an ~20 minute small group activity during the flow of a “lecture” related to earthquakes or tectonics. Could also be adapted as a short homework exercise.


Students learn to read GPS time series plots and apply that knowledge to evaluating the earthquake hazard in Cascadia. They observe that in the Pacific Northwest the western edge of the North American plate is moving northeastward compared to the interior of the North American continent. These observations support the hypothesis that the plate boundary is “locked” and building up strain that must eventually release in the next great Cascadia earthquake. After exploring the GPS data the class can watch a short 4 minute animation that helps vizualize the processes involved.

Download Materials


This activity takes 20-30 minutes in class or lab.

All files bundled

26 MB • v: Oct 24, 2013

Individual files:

Document: Activity explanation document for the instructor

0.2 MB • v: Oct 24, 2013

This document gives details for the instructor on how to run the activity.

Presentation: GPS data and earthquake hazard

8 MB • v: Oct 24, 2013

This PowerPoint provides a basic introduction to what GPS is and how to determine crustal velocities from GPS location plots.

Activity: Determinging velocities from Cascadia GPS time series plots

0.2 MB • v: Oct 24, 2013

These handouts contain location time series from ten Plate Boundary Observatory (PBO) GPS stations in Cascadia. Stations are selected to highlight the differences in velocity between coastal, foreland, and east-of-Cascades stations.

Animation: What can GPS can tell us about future earthquakes? [youtube] and [mp4]

11 MB • v: Oct 18, 2013

This animation helps viewers connect the GPS velocities to the large plate tectonic processes and see that the ongoing deformation in Cascadia shows that area must someday experience another earthquake at or near magnitude 9, as Japan did in 2011.

Module Development

This work is based on materials provided by the UNAVCO Education and Community Engagement Program, and the GAGE Facility supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under NSF award: EAR 1261833. Developed by: Roger Groom (Mt Tabor Middle School) and Robert Butler (University of Portland) with modifications by Beth Pratt-Sitaula (UNAVCO)

Contact: with questions.


Last modified: 2020-04-18  01:48:14  America/Denver