Ionospheric signature of surface mine blasts from Global Positioning System measurements



Sources such as atmospheric or buried explosions and shallow earthquakes are known to produce infrasonic pressure waves in the atmosphere Because of the coupling between neutral particles and electrons at ionospheric altitudes, these acoustic and gravity waves induce variations of the ionospheric electron density. The Global Positioning System (GPS) provides a way of directly measuring the total electron content in the ionosphere and, therefore, of detecting such perturbations in the upper atmosphere. In July and August 1996, three large surface mine blasts (1.5 Kt each) were detonated at the Black Thunder coal mine in eastern Wyoming. As part of a seismic and acoustic monitoring experiment, we deployed five dual-frequency GPS receivers at distances ranging from 50 to 200 km from the mine and were able to detect the ionospheric perturbation caused by the blasts. The perturbation starts 10 to 15 min after the blast, lasts for about 30 min, and propagates with an apparent horizontal velocity of 1200 m s− 1. Its amplitude reaches 3 × 1014 el m− 2 in the 7–3 min period band, a value close to the ionospheric perturbation caused by the M=6.7 Northridge earthquake (Calais & Minster 1995). The small signal-to-noise ratio of the perturbation can be improved by slant-stacking the electron content time-series recorded by the different GPS receivers taking into account the horizontal propagation of the perturbation. The energy of the perturbation is concentrated in the 200 to 300 s period band, a result consistent with previous observations and numerical model predictions. The 300 s band probably corresponds to gravity modes and shorter periods to acoustic modes, respectively. Using a 1-D stratified velocity model of the atmosphere we show that linear acoustic ray tracing fits arrival times at all GPS receivers. We interpret the perturbation as a direct acoustic wave caused by the explosion itself. This study shows that even relatively small subsurface events can produce ionospheric perturbations that are above the detection threshold of the GPS technique. By sensing derivative signals, which can be detected over a relatively broad region, it appears that GPS might be particularly useful for source characterization within the first acoustic quiet zone where infrasound would probably be ineffective. This suggests that dual-frequency GPS monitoring could contribute to Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty verification.