04 August 2016
by Simone M Scully
The entire continent of Australia has shifted -- and it's causing problems for GPS systems
Australia might not be as far away as it used to be because the entire continent has moved 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) since 1994, according to Reuters.
How did this happen? Tectonic shifts are the reason. The Australian tectonic plate is the fastest moving continental plate on Earth. Scientists believe that it split from the Indo-Australian plate approximately three million years ago, and today, it is moving 7cm (2.8 inches) northwards and slightly eastwards every year, colliding into the Pacific Plate on its journey. This drags the landmass of the continent just a little bit closer to the equator every year.
As the pressure between the Pacific and Australian plates builds and builds, earthquakes will most likely result.
While five feet doesn’t seem like a whole lot, it is still enough to disrupt global navigation satellite systems — which were and still are based on Australia’s position in 1994 — putting the continent out of sync. This affects not only the GPS maps on smartphones, but also delivery drones, farmers, meteorologists, and even automated cars.
This happens because modern satellite systems provide location data based on global lines of longitude and latitude, and these, unlike continents, are fixed. Many countries — including Australia — produce maps and measurements with the lines of longitude and latitude fixed to their continent. But as the plates move, this means that over time, local coordinates become out of sync with the global coordinates.
So now, scientists are planning to revamp all of Australia’s coordinates by January 2017. They intend to plot new points at a longitude and latitude scaled 1.8m to the north, which is actually an overcompensation — but just wait, the country’s mapped coordinates should align with the rest of the planets by 2020.
After 2020, a new system will take over and it will continually adjust with the shifts in the plates over time.
“We used the old plate fixed system to make life simple, but we don’t want to do this adjustment every so often,” Dan Jaksa of Geoscience Australia told the BBC. “Once we have a system that can deal with changes over time, then everybody in the world could be on that same system.”