University of Pittsburgh
April 6, 2004

Pitt Building Is Moving West

Global Positioning System monitors position of campus building
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH—No sudden movement has tipped the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) on its head, creating its unique tilted appearance. But that doesn't mean that the University of Pittsburgh building isn't moving. In fact, it is moving—1.69 centimeters westward each year.

Since August 2003, William Harbert, associate professor and chair of Pitt's Department of Geology and Planetary Sciences, has used a Global Positioning System (GPS) station perched on top of the LRDC building to measure the shifting of the North American tectonic plate.

Many buildings on Pitt's campus and in the city of Pittsburgh have shifted more than a meter from where they were first built, because, at the current rate, the North American plate moves approximately a meter every 60 years. But plate motion does not affect building stability, said Harbert, and the velocity of the North American plate during the past year is slow compared to the movement of other tectonic plates.

The GPS station on top of the LRDC has measured the position of the building for at least five days a week, eight hours a day since it was set up last May. Three months of testing ensued before the project began collecting official data in August. The project is a collaboration among Pitt's Department of Geology and Planetary Sciences, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and the National Geodetic Survey, as well as other organizations. The data is available at www.ngs.noaa.gov/CORS.

Harbert and his colleagues chose the LRDC from several other possible sites, including Benedum Hall and the Cathedral of Learning, because its unique height and position facilitate incoming satellite signals. The building is short enough not to sway in the wind but tall enough not to be blocked by surrounding buildings.

"It was like Goldilocks finding the porridge at just the right temperature," Harbert said. "What is most exciting about this project is that we will be introducing our students to GPS technology, which is extremely relevant to a wide variety of careers. Learning to work with this technology should be very exciting for our students and make them more employable."

After four hours of gathering data with GPS technology, students can calculate the position of an object to within four centimeters. After collecting data for 12 hours, students can narrow down the position to within two centimeters.

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