14 September 2011
Atmospheric electrons may act differently before megaquakes
Posted by kramsayer
Just before the recent huge earthquake in Japan, electron counts in the atmosphere high above the epicenter took a surprising turn, a new study indicates. Measurements gleaned from GPS satellites recorded more electrons in the ionosphere over the soon-to rupture fault than expected. A similar uptick occurred before extra-large quakes in Chile in 2010 and Sumatra in 2004, the researcher found.
A tantalizing question for seismologists and atmospheric scientists is whether this high-altitude electron bump, if confirmed by other studies, is a true early-warning signal for devastating earthquakes. Geophysicist Kosuke Heki of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, who reports the suggestive buildups in a new scientific paper, thinks that it could be.
“The claim that earthquakes are inherently unpredictable might not be true, at least for M9 [magnitude 9] class earthquakes,” Heki writes in an article accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
The study suggests that the total electron content, or TEC, in the ionosphere starts increasing as much as eight percent above background levels prior to massive earthquakes, with the biggest effect above the rupturing fault. The electron buildup before the Japan earthquake started 40 minutes before disaster struck.
The time involved in retrieving and analyzing the TEC data would make it difficult to use the information as a potential earthquake warning, the researcher says. For some scientists, even the notion of an earthquake precursor is controversial. Another earthquake expert, not involved in the study, said the data is interesting and should be studied in the future, but he is not completely convinced that change in TEC is an earthquake precursor.
Days after the devastating magnitude 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake struck Japan, Heki downloaded data from satellites that are part of the GPS Earth Observation Network. He was interested in oscillations of the TEC when acoustic waves echo from the epicenter into the ionosphere.
“I thought I’d see a very strong signal after this earthquake,” Heki says. “And in the course of working on that, I found something strange happened.” The TEC was higher before the expected oscillations occurred than it was after the oscillations, so he took another look at the raw data from the GPS satellites.
When the Tohoku-Oki earthquake struck on March 11, eight GPS satellites were relatively near the epicenter. Normally, satellite measurements of the ionosphere’s TEC vary gradually due to the satellite’s elevation changes. But about 40 minutes before the earthquake, the TEC stopped following the expected pattern, reaching as much as about 8 percent above the background curve, or about 2.3 total electron content units (the equivalent of 23 million billion electrons per square meter). And the satellites close to the ruptured fault showed more of an anomaly than those farther away.
But changes in total electron content aren’t rare, Heki says. Solar flares and other ionospheric disturbances can cause fluctuations. So he looked at TEC prior to other major earthquakes, including the 2010 Chile earthquake.
“I saw almost the same signature as the Tohoku earthquake,” Heki says. And although there were fewer GPS stations operational during the 2004 Sumatra quake, those showed a similar TEC anomaly. Smaller quakes, around magnitude 8.0 and below, don’t appear to have the same TEC increases.
It’s currently not feasible to use total electron content as a warning system for giant quakes, Heki says. There is a dense network of GPS satellites, especially over earthquake-prone areas like Japan, California and Indonesia, but the organization running the GPS network over Japan uploads the data once every few hours. And it takes time to analyze the data and weed out other disturbances to the total electron content like solar flares.
The next step for researchers could be to both determine what causes a change in TEC prior to earthquakes, as well as establish additional measuring stations on the ground to monitor the electric field.
“Whenever the next magnitude 9 earthquake happens, I think we can catch the signal,” Heki says.
Hiroo Kanamori, a professor emeritus of geophysics at the California Institute of Technology who was not involved with the study, says that Heki makes a good argument that something was anomalous in the ionosphere, but he is not ready to call it an earthquake precursor.
“I think it’s worthwhile to document it like this, to see what will happen with the next event,” Kanamori says, “but I can’t be completely convinced.”
One of the reasons, he says, is that there is no physical reason to draw the background reference curve as Heki did, and so it’s hard to say that Heki’s curve is the correct one to use when looking for anomalies in TEC. TEC can naturally be irregular, Kanamori adds, and a magnetic storm around the time of the earthquake could have thrown off the data.
Still, it’s interesting that the deviation from the curve seems to be smaller farther away from the quake, and that similar patterns showed up before the Sumatra and Chile events.
“It’s amazing if something really did happen 40 minutes before,” says Kanamori. “However, there are lots of uncertainties.”
Heki, K. (2011). Ionospheric electron enhancement preceding the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake Geophysical Research Letters
– Kate Ramsayer, AGU science writer
Could there be any detectable effect of the ionospheric TEC on radio propagation reflections from the ionosphere? There are many amateur radio beacon stations operating 24 hours a day and if a detectable effect were possible this network might be the place to look for it, because the data should be much more quickly available.
You allow people to repost your articles without giving you recognition?
Thats what came to mind too there Bob while we were reading this. I had heard of ionospheric disturbances before been mentioned by a couple radio amateurs but no indepth research seems to have been done in this (to my knowledge). It would be a great project to do.
African Space Institute
A derivative of a HAARP facility might detect the increased electron signature, but the sun can put a monkey wrench into such a detection method.
Of interest is earthquake lights, perhaps they’re related? Piezoelectric release before the big “snap” that is the earthquake?
So, what other effects might be observed? A change in charge in a static electrically charged foil, such as the old static electricity experiment with the repelling foil (which is also used for some old model military radiation dosimeters)? THAT might effect the charge, if the charged foil were exposed to any potential flux…
Considering that the ionosphere and Earth are like a multi-layer capacitor in many ways, that could explain the additional electrons in the ionosphere before (and during) an earthquake.
[…] previo en que se presenta este fenómeno no es suficiente como para evacuar ciudades enteras. Un un artículo publicado por la revista Geo Space, de la Unión Geofísica de EEUU, dice que algunos científicos no creen mucho en esta teoría y […]
[…] posted 14 September 2011 by Kate Ramsayer, American Geophysical Union (AGU) science writer (https://blogs.agu.org/geospace/2011/09/14/atmospheric-electrons/) This entry was posted in Earthquakes prediction and tagged earthquake precursors, earthquakes […]
[…] prominent example: the tracked ‘atmospheric quake’ in front of the Japan M 9, published by Prof. Kosuke Hek…, of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, […]