2009

Using GPS to Detect Imminent Tsunamis

Reliable tsunami warnings could be generated within minutes of causative earthquakes.

A promising method of detecting imminent tsunamis and estimating their destructive potential involves the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) data in addition to seismic data. Application of the method is expected to increase the reliability of global tsunami-warning systems, making it possible to save lives while reducing the incidence of false alarms. Tsunamis kill people every year. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed about 230,000 people. The magnitude of an earthquake is not always a reliable indication of the destructive potential of a tsunami. The 2004 Indian Ocean quake generated a huge tsunami, while the 2005 Nias (Indonesia) quake did not, even though both were initially estimated to be of the similar magnitude. Between 2005 and 2007, five false tsunami alarms were issued worldwide. Such alarms result in negative societal and economic effects.

GPS stations can detect ground motions of earthquakes in real time, as frequently as every few seconds. In the present method, the epicenter of an earthquake is located by use of data from seismometers, then data from coastal GPS stations near the epicenter are used to infer sea-floor displacements that precede a tsunami. The displacement data are used in conjunction with local topographical data and an advanced theory to quantify the destructive potential of a tsunami on a new “tsunami scale,” based on the GPSderived tsunami energy, much like the Richter Scale used for earthquakes. An important element of the derivation of the advanced theory was recognition that horizontal sea-floor motions contribute much more to generation of tsunamis than previously believed. The method produces a reliable estimate of the destructive potential of a tsunami within minutes — typically, well before the tsunami reaches coastal areas.

The viability of the method was demonstrated in computational tests in which the method yielded accurate representations of three historical tsunamis for which well-documented groundmotion measurements were available. Development of a global tsunami-warning system utilizing an expanded network of coastal GPS stations was under consideration at the time of reporting the information for this article.

This work was done by Y. Tony Song of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The software used in this innovation is available for commercial licensing. Please contact Karina Edmonds of the California Institute of Technology at (626) 395-2322. Refer to NPO-45940.