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GNSS shows how volcanic eruptions cause ionospheric disruptions

On Jan. 15, Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai, an uninhabited volcanic island on the Tongan archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, erupted with spectacular force, churning ocean waters halfway across the globe.

GNSS engineers also detected its effects hundreds of miles above, in the ionosphere. The GNSS community is now moving from such after-the-fact detection to real-time monitoring using NASA’s Global Differential GPS (GDGPS) system, according to a team with the Tracking Systems and Application Section at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California.

“We monitored, in real time, four GNSS satellite constellations from numerous stations around the world using the GDGPS network. In particular, the three stations closest to the volcano, in Samoa, Fiji and Tahiti,” said postdoctoral associate Leo Martire. “We could see extremely high and strong signals in the ionosphere, which is very unusual. As a function of radial distance from the eruption, the first detected ionospheric perturbation likely originated directly from the explosion. Then we see patterns propagating at increasing distances at different radial propagation speeds.”

Monitoring such events adds information to the catalog of signals from natural hazards, pointed out Siddharth Krishnamoorthy, a research technologist who manages JPL’s GUARDIAN near-real-time tsunami warning system, currently under development. “That is useful because, in the future, if you want to be able to spot natural hazards and issue alerts, you need to know what the signal looks like. There have been reports of a tsunami in Tonga due to this event, so we will look at potential tsunami-induced signatures in the ionosphere. We are trying to get to a place where we pick up a signal like this and we are able to say, ‘This is a tsunami propagating at this speed and in this direction.’”

Chart: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Chart: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Before being detected in the ionosphere, signals from natural hazards must travel all the way from the surface. For tsunamis, this usually takes more than 10 to 20 minutes, but the volcanic eruption only took a couple of minutes to reach the ionosphere because it shot straight up. “We do not know yet, based on observations, how exactly different events on the surface caused by natural hazards couple with the atmosphere,” said research technologist Panagiotis Vergados. “Every event is unique in its spectral properties.”

The event did not affect the quality of GDGPS’s GNSS positions or orbits, because dual-frequency measurements remove significant ionospheric effects. “Instead of looking at the direct effects on the position of our available reference stations, which is what our traditional real-time monitoring does and which was basically negligible, imagine the links from each of those stations to a dozen or more satellites,” said Larry Romans, GDGPS chief technologist. “Every time one of those many links pierces the ionosphere, we can monitor that signal for ripples as waves go by. So, this is an incredibly powerful method for seeing disturbances, just in terms of the density of data. It is very complementary to position-based natural-hazards monitoring because the data is much richer.”

In addition to volcanoes and tsunamis, several other natural events, such as earthquakes and very large thunderstorms, also produce these effects. “These natural forcings cause large-scale, low-frequency pressure perturbations that tend to travel up and be visible in the ionosphere,” Krishnamoorthy said. “There are also perturbations of the ionosphere due to events from outside the Earth, such as solar flares or bolide impacts.”

Many of these perturbations start from the troposphere, which ranges between 10 km and 15 km in altitude — including hurricanes, which overshoot gravity waves all the way to the ionosphere, and thermal tides that have been observed to go all the way up to 600 km, said Vergados. “There are also geomagnetic storms and sub-storms that, during electron precipitation, can change the ionization of the ionosphere. So, the coupling can happen from either below or above or simultaneously, and then the effect can be dramatically enhanced.”

Most of the perturbations that come from below are of a pressure nature — that is, they start out as mechanical waves — while most of those that come from above are electromagnetic. “Aside from nuclear explosions, very large chemical ones, such as the 2020 Beirut explosion, also cause a signature on the ionosphere because they create very large pressure waves,” Krishnamoorthy said.

Photo: Tonga Meteorological Services, Government of Tonga

Photo: Tonga Meteorological Services, Government of Tonga

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