Due to tectonic movements, the entire region of Australia has moved 1.5 meters north over the past 22 years, setting it out of sync with global positioning systems (GPS). To solve the problem, the government declared that the nation's latitude and longitude will officially be updated to reflect the continent's new location. The Australian plate is the loosest continental plate on the planet, moving northwards and a little to the east by about 7 centimeters each year.
All that movement can create tension that ultimately releases in the form of an earthquake, but the fastest result is that it drags the entire continent of Australia nearer to the equator year after year, which means the country is not actually where we think it is any longer. At the moment, digital maps recognize where a country is supposed to be based on complete coordinates provided by the government. As a result, if you are looking at Google Maps, your phone has already been searching for a signal sent out by one of the many GPS satellites revolving around the planet.
And based on the positioning data that comes back, your phone is able to understand your longitude and latitude and the area on the map based on your country's certified coordinates. But for Australia, those coordinates were last updated by the government, the Geocentric Datum of Australia (GDA) in 1994, and since then, the continent's moved more 1.5 meters.
A 1.5-meter difference is not a big issue for those of who just want to use Google Maps to figure out the fastest way home because GPS technology on our smartphones is only accurate to within 5 to 10 meters in any case. But as technology advances and we start to depend on GPS to do things like navigate self-driving cars, we are going to need the measurements to be a whole lot more than accurate.
Dan Jaksa from Geo-science Australia told ABC News, "In the not-too-distant prospect, we are going to have maybe driverless cars or at least self-directed vehicles where, 1.5 meters, well, you are in the mid of the road or you're in another lane. So the information needs to be as accurate as the information we are gathering."
To solve this problem, the GDA has declared that it will officially be updating the nation's coordinates in 2017, based on calculations of where the country will be in 2020, nearly 2 meters more north than where the GDA says we are now. That means for three years, the new coordinates will also be faintly out of sync while the continent catches up with our updated longitude and latitude, but they will be a complete lot more accurate than they are now.
The government is also observing into how they can keep the numbers latest in the future.
Jaksa told ABC, "We have points on Australia that are fixed to Australia and the lines of latitude and longitude change with those points. The lines are fixed to the region but as time passes, that position related to a GPS position can produce a difference, so every so often we need to change that."
Things get complicated because huge tectonic shifts, such as earthquakes, can also change the longitude and latitude of a continent. Back in 2004 magnitude 8.1 earthquakes, occurred in the Pacific Ocean just one day before the Indian Ocean tsunami, and it moved the distance between continent Australia and Tasmania by millimeters. And after previous year's Nepalese earthquake, the Himalayas actually shifted by 1.5 meters. It's easy to overlook, but our planet is continuously moving. We just need to find a way to maintain.
UPDATE: We have updated this story to fix a genuine error about GPS and smart phones. The previous version detailed that smart phones bounced signals up to a satellite, while they really are just receivers of GPS satellite data.