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Measuring contemporary crustal motions; NASA’s Crustal Dynamics Project

January 1, 1988

In the early and middle 1970's, two new space-based geodetic techniques became available that offered unprecedented accuracy in the measurement of distances over long baselines. As described below, Satellite Laser Ranging (SLR) and Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) provided a capability to determine in relatively short periods of time the inter-site distance between two observing stations to a level of several centimeters, even if they were separated by thousands or tens of thousands of kilometers. During the 1980's the two techniques have evolved to the point where baselines can now be routinely measured to a level below one centimeter. This is a tenfold improvement in about ten years.

Perhaps more important than providing the measurement capability are the consequences of this capability when applied over a few years: the motion of any one site with respect to another can be monitored at the level of better than a cm/yr. This has made possible, for the first time, direct measurement of the motion of the Earth's tectonic plates and of the deformation of its crust in active plate boundary regions. Because such measurements have the potential for providing important information on the mechanisms that drive plates and cause them to slip during earthquakes, a coordinated federal program for the application of this space technology to crustal dynamics and earthquake research was established in 1979. The participating agencies were the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Defense Mapping Agency.

NASA formed the Crustal Dynamics Project to further develop the SLR and VLBI techniques, to implement global networks of stations with the cooperation of many different countries, and to conduct measurements of plate motions and regional deformations. this project has grown into an international effort to collect information directly relevant to understanding the threat of the earthquake hazard as well as fundamental research about the crust and upper mantle.

In this article we describe briefly the two space geodetic techniques and how they are used by the Crustal Dynamics Project, show some of the very exciting results that have emerged at the halfway point in the project's life, describe the availability and utilization of the data being collected, and consider what the future may hold when measurement accuracies eventually exceed even those now available and when other international groups become more heavily involved.   

Publication Year 1988
Title Measuring contemporary crustal motions; NASA’s Crustal Dynamics Project
Authors H. V. Frey, J. M. Bosworth
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Earthquakes & Volcanoes (USGS)
Index ID 70162664
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse