CWU News

NASA Renews Grant for CWU Earthquake Warning Research

Earthquake detection and characterization has been the central focus of the Pacific Northwest Geodetic Array (PANGA) laboratory at Central Washington University for more than 25 years. A recent grant from NASA will ensure that the lab’s life-saving work will continue for at least another year. 

The $225,908 funding package — the second of three annual installments — will help PANGA further develop a Global Real-Time Global Navigation Satellite System Analysis Center. The facility will enable earth scientists and U.S. earthquake and tsunami early-warning systems to track and analyze seismic activity from around the world — and the tsunamis that often follow — using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. 

As PANGA director Tim Melbourne explained, if the lab can characterize an earthquake’s location, magnitude, and associated ground deformation quickly enough, emergency personnel can notify residents about strong earthquake activity before it arrives, giving them more time to prepare. When tracking tsunamis, GPS helps provide early alerts so the residents of coastal communities can evacuate before inundation begins.

“We think these early warnings will help save lives,” said Melbourne, a Geological Sciences professor at CWU. “Existing seismic and tsunami warning centers struggle to accurately characterize large earthquakes quickly using only seismometers, which often requires 15 or more minutes to get an accurate magnitude. With GPS, often only 20 or 30 seconds is needed to gauge its magnitude.”

Melbourne said the most critical difference between using GPS and seismometers in tracking earthquake activity is that GPS can more accurately determine an earthquake’s size in a shorter period of time. The magnitude of a tremor determines how widely shaking alerts and tsunami warnings should be sent out. PANGA’s research has shown that bringing GPS into early-warning systems can lead to more accurate warnings and fewer casualties.

“There’s been a big push over the past 10 years to integrate more GPS into seismology grants,” Melbourne said, “and we’ve been able to show enough positive results that NASA said, ‘keep doing what you’re doing.’” 

One of PANGA’s recent successes was the detection of a 7.1-magnitude earthquake last July in Riverside, California, when scientists were able to measure the ground deformation of the eastern Mojave Desert within 25 seconds — all from the CWU campus in Ellensburg. The lab’s work also has been highlighted in a number of publications this year, including the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA). 

Learn more about CWU’s earthquake detection research at

Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs;, 509-963-1518.