Tracking tsunamis by GPS

Giovanni Occhipinti, Attila Komjathy and Philippe Lognonné
01 Jul 2008


So, can ionospheric sounding provide a robust method of tsunami confirmation‾ It is our hope that in the future this technique can be incorporated into a tsunami early-warning system and complement the more traditional methods of detection including tide gauges and ocean buoys. Our research focuses on whether ground-based GPS TEC measurements combined with a numerical model of the tsunami-ionosphere coupling could be used to detect tsunamis robustly. Such a detection scheme depends on how the ionospheric signature is related to the amplitude of the sea surface displacement resulting from a tsunami. In the near future, the ionospheric monitoring of TEC perturbations might become an integral part of a tsunami warning system that could potentially make it much more effective due to the significantly increased area of coverage and timeliness of confirmation.

Two types of ionospheric anomaly were observed during the Sumatra event. Anomalies of the first type, detected worldwide in the first few hours after the earthquake, were reported from north of Sumatra, in Europe and in Japan. They are associated with the surface seismic waves that propagate around the world after an earthquake rupture (so-called Rayleigh waves).

Anomalies of the second type were detected above the ocean and were clearly associated with the tsunami. In the Indian Ocean, the occurrence times of TEC perturbations observed using ground-based GPS receivers and satellite altimeters were consistent with the observed tsunami propagation speed. The GPS observations from sites to the north of Sumatra show internal gravity waves most likely coupled with the tsunami or generated at the source and propagating independently in the atmosphere. The link with the tsunami is more evident in the observations elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. The TEC perturbations observed by the other ground-based GPS receivers moved horizontally with a velocity coherent with the tsunami propagation.

The amplitude of the observed TEC perturbations is strongly dependent on the filter method used. The four TECU-level peak-to-peak variations in filtered GPS TEC measurements from north of Sumatra are coherent with the differential TEC at the 0.4 TECU per 30 seconds level observed in the rest of the Indian Ocean. (One TEC unit or TECU is 1016 electrons per meter-squared, equivalent to 0.162 meters of range delay at the GPS L1 frequency.) Such magnitudes can be detected using GPS measurements since GPS phase observables are sensitive to TEC fluctuations at the 0.01 TECU level. We emphasize also the role of the elevation angle in the detection of tsunamigenic perturbations in the ionosphere. As a consequence of the integrated nature of TEC and the vertical structure of the tsunamigenic perturbation, low-elevation angle geometry is more sensitive to the tsunami signature in the GPS data, hence it is more visible.

Modeling TEC perturbations

The link between the tsunami at sea level and the perturbation observed in the ionosphere has been demonstrated using a 3D numerical modeling based on the coupling between the ocean surface, the neutral atmosphere, and the ionosphere. The modeling reproduced the TEC data with good agreement in amplitude as well as in the waveform shape, and quantified it by a cross-correlation. The resulting shift of +/-1 degree showed the presence of zonal and meridional winds neglected in the modeling. The presence of the wind can, indeed, introduce a shift of 1 degree in latitude and 1.5 degrees in longitude.


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