Tracking tsunamis by GPS

Giovanni Occhipinti, Attila Komjathy and Philippe Lognonné
01 Jul 2008

In the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, an important effort is underway to interconnect seismic networks and to provide early alarms quantifying the level of tsunami risk within 15 minutes of an earthquake. However, in the open ocean, detecting, characterizing, and imaging tsunami waves is still a challenge. The offshore vertical tsunami displacement (on the order of a few centimeters up to half a meter in the case of the Sumatra tsunami) is hidden in the natural ocean wave fluctuations, which can be several meters or more. In addition, the number of offshore instruments capable of tsunami measurements, such as tide gauges and buoys, is very limited - there are only about 70 buoys in the whole world. As a tsunami propagates with a typical speed of 600-700 km per hour, a 15-minute confirmation system would require a worldwide buoy network with a 150-kilometer spacing.

In many cases, the tsunami can only be identified several hours after the seismic event due to the poor distribution of sensors. This delay is necessary for the tsunami to reach the buoys and for the signal to be recorded for a minimum of one wave period (a typical tsunami wave period is between 10 and 40 minutes) to be adequately filtered by removing the "noise" due to normal wave action.

In the case of the December 2004 Sumatra event, the first tsunami measurements by any instrumentation were only made available about three hours after the earthquake via the real-time tide gauge at the Cocos Islands in the southeast Indian Ocean. Up until that time, the tsunami could not be fully confirmed and coastal areas remained vulnerable to tsunami damage. This delay in confirmation is a fundamental weakness of the existing tsunami warning systems.

Clues in the ionosphere

Recently, observational and modeling results have confirmed the existence and detectability of a tsunamigenic signature in the ionosphere. Physically, the displacement induced by tsunamis at the sea surface is transmitted into the atmosphere where it produces internal gravity waves (IGWs) propagating upward. (When a fluid or gas parcel is displaced at an interface, or internally, to a region with a different density, gravity restores the parcel toward equilibrium resulting in an oscillation about the equilibrium state; hence the term gravity wave.) The normal ocean surface variability has a typical high frequency (compared to tsunami waves) and does not transfer detectable energy into the atmosphere. In other words, the Earth's atmosphere behaves as an "analog low-pass filter." Only a tsunami produces propagating waves in the atmosphere. During the upward propagation, these waves are strongly amplified by the double effects of the conservation of kinetic energy and the decrease of atmospheric density resulting in a local displacement of several tens of meters per second at 300 km altitude in the atmosphere. This displacement can reach a few hundred meters per second for the largest events.

At an altitude of about 300 kilometers, the neutral atmosphere is strongly coupled with the ionospheric plasma producing perturbations in the electron density. These perturbations are visible in GPS and satellite altimeter data since those signals have to transit the ionosphere. The dual-frequency signal emitted by GPS satellites can be processed to obtain the integral of electron density along the paths between the satellites and the receiver, the total electron content (TEC).

Within about 15 minutes, the waves generated at the sea surface reach ionospheric altitudes, creating measurable fluctuations in the ionospheric plasma and consequently in the TEC. This indirect method of tsunami detection should be helpful in ocean monitoring, allowing us to follow an oceanic wave from its generation to its propagation in the open ocean.


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