SEISMOLOGY PAGES

Photograph of As-1 SeismometerBeal High School is now running an AS-1 seismograph (see picture, left). You can now watch large earthquakes as they roll in from all around the world.

ONLINE 24/7 so that you can check in to see if there have been any new earthquakes, or you may be lucky enough to see one in 'real time'.

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NEW! Click here to see how seismic waves travel through the Earth! NEW

What is a seismograph?

Most seismographs today are electronic, like our one, but a basic seismograph is made of a drum with paper on it, a bar or spring with a hinge at one or both ends, a weight, and a pen. The one end of the bar or spring is bolted to a pole or metal box that is bolted to the ground. The weight is put on the other end of the bar and the pen is stuck to the weight. The drum with paper on it presses against the pen and turns constantly. When there is an earthquake, everything in the seismograph moves except the weight with the pen on it. As the drum and paper shake next to the pen, the pen makes squiggly lines on the paper, creating a record of the earthquake. This record made by the seismograph is called a seismogram.

What can it tell you?

By studying the seismogram, the seismologist can tell how far away the earthquake was and how strong it was. This record doesn't tell the seismologist exactly where the epicenter was, just that the earthquake happened so many miles or kilometers away from that seismograph. To find the exact epicenter, you need to know what at least two other seismographs in other parts of the country or world recorded. We'll get to that in a minute. First, you have to learn how to read a seismogram.

How do I read a seismogram?

When you look at a seismogram, there will be wiggly lines all across it. These are all the seismic waves that the seismograph has recorded. Most of these waves were so small that nobody felt them. These tiny microseisms can be caused by heavy traffic near the seismograph, waves hitting a beach, the wind, and any number of other ordinary things that cause some shaking of the seismograph. There may also be some little dots or marks evenly spaced along the paper. These are marks for every minute that the drum of the seismograph has been turning. How far apart these minute marks are will depend on what kind of seismograph you have.

So which wiggles are the earthquake? The P wave will be the first wiggle that is bigger than the rest of the little ones (the microseisms). Because P waves are the fastest seismic waves, they will usually be the first ones that your seismograph records. The next set of seismic waves on your seismogram will be the S waves. These are usually bigger than the P waves.


If there aren't any S waves marked on your seismogram, it probably means the earthquake happened on the other side of the planet. S waves can't travel through the liquid layers of the earth so these waves never made it to your seismograph.

The surface waves (Love and Rayleigh waves) are the other, often larger, waves marked on the seismogram. Surface waves travel a little slower than S waves (which are slower than P waves) so they tend to arrive at the seismograph just after the S waves. For shallow earthquakes (earthquakes with a focus near the surface of the earth), the surface waves may be the largest waves recorded by the seismograph. Often they are the only waves recorded a long distance from medium-sized earthquakes.

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