Australia Is Moving And It's Upsetting Its GPS Coordinates

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Ever the troublemaker, Australia has been creeping northwards around 6.9 centimeters (2.7 inches) each year in a slightly clockwise direction due to the movement of its tectonic plates. In geological terms, this meandering is pretty pacy. Some 50 million years from now, it is even expected to collide into the southeastern coast of China.

In the shorter term, however, the trouble is with global positioning systems (GPS) and their struggle to keep track.

GPS satellite networks determine a location based on global longitudes and latitudes. This means a certain coordinate would remain the same in relation to the globe as a whole, even if that actual land mass has moved “around” it. To account for this, Australia has had to adjust its coordinates four times in the last 50 years. Their last shift in 1994 was a whopping 200 meters (656 feet), the New York Times reports.

Their next big move is scheduled for New Year's day 2017, when Australia – along with 23 million hungover Aussies – will officially move their local coordinates forward by 1.8 meters (5.9 feet).

You might think, what’s the big deal? After all, your car or smartphone GPS seems like a constant source of disappointment when it comes to step-by-step accuracy.

But the trouble occurs when automated technology increasingly relies on highly accurate global positioning and coordinates. Take, for example, driverless cars: A few feet in this case could mean driving along the sidewalk. The same goes for aerial drones, whether that be an online shopping delivery or some high-tech military vehicle.

The solution gets even more tricky when you consider all tectonic plates are on the move at different rates and in different directions. For example, the North American plate is moving at 2.5 centimeters (0.98 inches) a year, according to National Geographic.

The next step, then, is perhaps developing a new and more complex system of positioning that is able to account for these movements. 

"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."


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