Geophysical applicability of atomic clocks: direct continental geoid mapping



The geoid is the true physical figure of the Earth, a particular equipotential surface of the Earth's gravity field that accounts for the effect of all subsurface density variations. Its shape approximates best (in the sense of least squares) the mean level of oceans, but the geoid is more difficult to determine over continents. Satellite missions carry out distance measurements and derive the gravity field to provide geoid maps over the entire globe. However, they require calibration and extensive computations including integration, which is a non-unique operation. Here we propose a direct method and a new tool that directly measures geopotential differences on continents using atomic clocks. General relativity theory predicts constant clock rate at sea level, and faster (slower) clock rate above (below) sea level. The technology of atomic clocks is on the doorstep of reaching an accuracy level in clock rate (frequency ratio inaccuracy of 10−18), which is equivalent to 1 cm in determining equipotential surface (including geoid) height. We discuss the value and future applicability of such measurements including direct geoid mapping on continents, and joint gravity–geopotential surveying to invert for subsurface density anomalies. Our synthetic calculations show that the geoid perturbation caused by a 1.5 km radius sphere with 20 per cent density anomaly buried at 2 km depth in the Earth's crust is already detectable by atomic clocks of achievable accuracy. Therefore atomic clock geopotential surveys, used together with relative gravity data to benefit from their different depth sensitivities, can become a useful tool in mapping density anomalies within the Earth.