Lightning—one, two, three—and thunder. For centuries, people have estimated the distance of a thunderstorm from the time between lightning and thunder. The greater the time gap between the two signals, the further away the observer is from the location of the lightning. This is because lightning propagates at the speed of light with almost no time delay, while thunder propagates at the much slower speed of sound of around 340 metres per second.
Earthquakes also send out signals that propagate at the speed of light (300,000 kilometers per second) and can be recorded long before the relatively slow seismic waves (about 8 kilometers per second). However, the signals that travel at the speed of light are not lightning bolts, but sudden changes in gravity caused by a shift in the earth’s internal mass. Only recently, these so-called PEGS signals (PEGS = prompt elasto-gravity signals) were detected by seismic measurements. With the help of these signals, it might be possible to detect an earthquake very early before the arrival of the destructive earthquake or tsunami waves.
However, the gravitational effect of this phenomenon is very small. It amounts to less than one billionth of the earth’s gravity. Therefore, PEGS signals could only be recorded for the strongest earthquakes. In addition, the process of their generation is complex: they are not only generated directly at the source of the earthquake, but also continuously as the earthquake waves propagate through the earth’s interior.
Until now, there has been no direct and exact method to reliably simulate the generation of PEGS signals in the computer. The algorithm now proposed by the GFZ researchers around Rongjiang Wang can calculate PEGS signals with high accuracy and without much effort for the first time. The researchers were also able to show that the signals allow conclusions to be drawn about the strength, duration and mechanism of very large earthquakes. The study was published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.