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Animation of tsunami triggered by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake

Seismology ( /szˈmɒləi/ ; from Ancient Greek σεισμός (seismós) meaning "earthquake" and -λογία (-logía) meaning "study of") is the scientific study of earthquakes and the propagation of elastic waves through the Earth or through other planet-like bodies. The field also includes studies of earthquake environmental effects such as tsunamis as well as diverse seismic sources such as volcanic, tectonic, glacial, fluvial, oceanic, atmospheric, and artificial processes such as explosions. A related field that uses geology to infer information regarding past earthquakes is paleoseismology. A recording of Earth motion as a function of time is called a seismogram. A seismologist is a scientist who does research in seismology.



Scholarly interest in earthquakes can be traced back to antiquity. Early speculations on the natural causes of earthquakes were included in the writings of Thales of Miletus (c. 585 BCE), Anaximenes of Miletus (c. 550 BCE), Aristotle (c. 340 BCE), and Zhang Heng (132 CE).

In 132 CE, Zhang Heng of China's Han dynasty designed the first known seismoscope. [1] [2] [3]

In the 17th century, Athanasius Kircher argued that earthquakes were caused by the movement of fire within a system of channels inside the Earth. Martin Lister (1638 to 1712) and Nicolas Lemery (1645 to 1715) proposed that earthquakes were caused by chemical explosions within the earth. [4]

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, coinciding with the general flowering of science in Europe, set in motion intensified scientific attempts to understand the behaviour and causation of earthquakes. The earliest responses include work by John Bevis (1757) and John Michell (1761). Michell determined that earthquakes originate within the Earth and were waves of movement caused by "shifting masses of rock miles below the surface." [5]

From 1857, Robert Mallet laid the foundation of instrumental seismology and carried out seismological experiments using explosives. He is also responsible for coining the word "seismology." [6]

In 1897, Emil Wiechert's theoretical calculations led him to conclude that the Earth's interior consists of a mantle of silicates, surrounding a core of iron. [7]

In 1906 Richard Dixon Oldham identified the separate arrival of P-waves, S-waves and surface waves on seismograms and found the first clear evidence that the Earth has a central core. [8]

In 1909, Andrija Mohorovičić, one of the founders of modern seismology, [9] [10] [11] discovered and defined the Mohorovičić discontinuity. [12] Usually referred to as the "Moho discontinuity" or the "Moho," it is the boundary between the Earth's crust and the mantle. It is defined by the distinct change in velocity of seismological waves as they pass through changing densities of rock. [13]

In 1910, after studying the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Harry Fielding Reid put forward the "elastic rebound theory" which remains the foundation for modern tectonic studies. The development of this theory depended on the considerable progress of earlier independent streams of work on the behavior of elastic materials and in mathematics. [14]

In 1926, Harold Jeffreys was the first to claim, based on his study of earthquake waves, that below the mantle, the core of the Earth is liquid. [15]

In 1937, Inge Lehmann determined that within Earth's liquid outer core there is a solid inner core. [16]

By the 1960s, Earth science had developed to the point where a comprehensive theory of the causation of seismic events and geodetic motions had come together in the now well-established theory of plate tectonics.

Types of seismic wave

Seismogram records showing the three components of ground motion. The red line marks the first arrival of P-waves; the green line, the later arrival of S-waves. Seismogram.gif
Seismogram records showing the three components of ground motion. The red line marks the first arrival of P-waves; the green line, the later arrival of S-waves.

Seismic waves are elastic waves that propagate in solid or fluid materials. They can be divided into body waves that travel through the interior of the materials; surface waves that travel along surfaces or interfaces between materials; and normal modes, a form of standing wave.

Body waves

There are two types of body waves, pressure waves or primary waves (P-waves) and shear or secondary waves (S-waves). P-waves are longitudinal waves that involve compression and expansion in the direction that the wave is moving and are always the first waves to appear on a seismogram as they are the fastest moving waves through solids. S-waves are transverse waves that move perpendicular to the direction of propagation. S-waves are slower than P-waves. Therefore, they appear later than P-waves on a seismogram. Fluids cannot support transverse elastic waves because of their low shear strength, so S-waves only travel in solids. [17]

Surface waves

Surface waves are the result of P- and S-waves interacting with the surface of the Earth. These waves are dispersive, meaning that different frequencies have different velocities. The two main surface wave types are Rayleigh waves, which have both compressional and shear motions, and Love waves, which are purely shear. Rayleigh waves result from the interaction of P-waves and vertically polarized S-waves with the surface and can exist in any solid medium. Love waves are formed by horizontally polarized S-waves interacting with the surface, and can only exist if there is a change in the elastic properties with depth in a solid medium, which is always the case in seismological applications. Surface waves travel more slowly than P-waves and S-waves because they are the result of these waves traveling along indirect paths to interact with Earth's surface. Because they travel along the surface of the Earth, their energy decays less rapidly than body waves (1/distance2 vs. 1/distance3), and thus the shaking caused by surface waves is generally stronger than that of body waves, and the primary surface waves are often thus the largest signals on earthquake seismograms. Surface waves are strongly excited when their source is close to the surface, as in a shallow earthquake or a near-surface explosion, and are much weaker for deep earthquake sources. [17]

Normal modes

Both body and surface waves are traveling waves; however, large earthquakes can also make the entire Earth "ring" like a resonant bell. This ringing is a mixture of normal modes with discrete frequencies and periods of approximately an hour or shorter. Normal mode motion caused by a very large earthquake can be observed for up to a month after the event. [17] The first observations of normal modes were made in the 1960s as the advent of higher fidelity instruments coincided with two of the largest earthquakes of the 20th century the 1960 Valdivia earthquake and the 1964 Alaska earthquake. Since then, the normal modes of the Earth have given us some of the strongest constraints on the deep structure of the Earth.


One of the first attempts at the scientific study of earthquakes followed the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Other notable earthquakes that spurred major advancements in the science of seismology include the 1857 Basilicata earthquake, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1964 Alaska earthquake, the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, and the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake.

Controlled seismic sources

Seismic waves produced by explosions or vibrating controlled sources are one of the primary methods of underground exploration in geophysics (in addition to many different electromagnetic methods such as induced polarization and magnetotellurics). Controlled-source seismology has been used to map salt domes, anticlines and other geologic traps in petroleum-bearing rocks, faults, rock types, and long-buried giant meteor craters. For example, the Chicxulub Crater, which was caused by an impact that has been implicated in the extinction of the dinosaurs, was localized to Central America by analyzing ejecta in the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, and then physically proven to exist using seismic maps from oil exploration. [18]

Detection of seismic waves

Installation for a temporary seismic station, north Iceland highland. Seismometer-iceland.JPG
Installation for a temporary seismic station, north Iceland highland.

Seismometers are sensors that detect and record the motion of the Earth arising from elastic waves. Seismometers may be deployed at the Earth's surface, in shallow vaults, in boreholes, or underwater. A complete instrument package that records seismic signals is called a seismograph. Networks of seismographs continuously record ground motions around the world to facilitate the monitoring and analysis of global earthquakes and other sources of seismic activity. Rapid location of earthquakes makes tsunami warnings possible because seismic waves travel considerably faster than tsunami waves. Seismometers also record signals from non-earthquake sources ranging from explosions (nuclear and chemical), to local noise from wind [19] or anthropogenic activities, to incessant signals generated at the ocean floor and coasts induced by ocean waves (the global microseism), to cryospheric events associated with large icebergs and glaciers. Above-ocean meteor strikes with energies as high as 4.2 × 1013 J (equivalent to that released by an explosion of ten kilotons of TNT) have been recorded by seismographs, as have a number of industrial accidents and terrorist bombs and events (a field of study referred to as forensic seismology). A major long-term motivation for the global seismographic monitoring has been for the detection and study of nuclear testing.

Mapping Earth's interior

Seismic velocities and boundaries in the interior of the Earth sampled by seismic waves Earthquake wave paths.svg
Seismic velocities and boundaries in the interior of the Earth sampled by seismic waves

Because seismic waves commonly propagate efficiently as they interact with the internal structure of the Earth, they provide high-resolution noninvasive methods for studying the planet's interior. One of the earliest important discoveries (suggested by Richard Dixon Oldham in 1906 and definitively shown by Harold Jeffreys in 1926) was that the outer core of the earth is liquid. Since S-waves do not pass through liquids, the liquid core causes a "shadow" on the side of the planet opposite the earthquake where no direct S-waves are observed. In addition, P-waves travel much slower through the outer core than the mantle.

Processing readings from many seismometers using seismic tomography, seismologists have mapped the mantle of the earth to a resolution of several hundred kilometers. This has enabled scientists to identify convection cells and other large-scale features such as the large low-shear-velocity provinces near the core–mantle boundary. [20]

Seismology and society

Earthquake prediction

Forecasting a probable timing, location, magnitude and other important features of a forthcoming seismic event is called earthquake prediction. Various attempts have been made by seismologists and others to create effective systems for precise earthquake predictions, including the VAN method. Most seismologists do not believe that a system to provide timely warnings for individual earthquakes has yet been developed, and many believe that such a system would be unlikely to give useful warning of impending seismic events. However, more general forecasts routinely predict seismic hazard. Such forecasts estimate the probability of an earthquake of a particular size affecting a particular location within a particular time-span, and they are routinely used in earthquake engineering.

Public controversy over earthquake prediction erupted after Italian authorities indicted six seismologists and one government official for manslaughter in connection with a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy on April 5, 2009. The indictment has been widely perceived[ by whom? ] as an indictment for failing to predict the earthquake and has drawn condemnation from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union. The indictment claims that, at a special meeting in L'Aquila the week before the earthquake occurred, scientists and officials were more interested in pacifying the population than providing adequate information about earthquake risk and preparedness. [21]

Engineering seismology

Engineering seismology is the study and application of seismology for engineering purposes. [22] It generally applied to the branch of seismology that deals with the assessment of the seismic hazard of a site or region for the purposes of earthquake engineering. It is, therefore, a link between earth science and civil engineering. [23] There are two principal components of engineering seismology. Firstly, studying earthquake history (e.g. historical [23] and instrumental catalogs [24] of seismicity) and tectonics [25] to assess the earthquakes that could occur in a region and their characteristics and frequency of occurrence. Secondly, studying strong ground motions generated by earthquakes to assess the expected shaking from future earthquakes with similar characteristics. These strong ground motions could either be observations from accelerometers or seismometers or those simulated by computers using various techniques, [26] which are then often used to develop ground motion prediction equations [27] (or ground-motion models).


Seismological instruments can generate large amounts of data. Systems for processing such data include:

Notable seismologists

See also


  1. Needham, Joseph (1959). Science and Civilization in China, Volume 3: Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 626–635.
  2. Dewey, James; Byerly, Perry (February 1969). "The early history of seismometry (to 1900)". Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. 59 (1): 183–227.
  3. Agnew, Duncan Carr (2002). "History of seismology". International Handbook of Earthquake and Engineering Seismology. International Geophysics. 81A: 3–11. doi:10.1016/S0074-6142(02)80203-0. ISBN   9780124406520.
  4. Udías, Agustín; Arroyo, Alfonso López (2008). "The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in Spanish contemporary authors". In Mendes-Victor, Luiz A.; Oliveira, Carlos Sousa; Azevedo, João; Ribeiro, Antonio (eds.). The 1755 Lisbon earthquake: revisited. Springer. p. 14. ISBN   9781402086090.
  5. Member of the Royal Academy of Berlin (2012). The History and Philosophy of Earthquakes Accompanied by John Michell's 'conjectures Concerning the Cause, and Observations upon the Ph'nomena of Earthquakes'. Cambridge Univ Pr. ISBN   9781108059909.
  6. Society, The Royal (2005-01-22). "Robert Mallet and the 'Great Neapolitan earthquake' of 1857". Notes and Records. 59 (1): 45–64. doi:10.1098/rsnr.2004.0076. ISSN   0035-9149. S2CID   71003016.
  7. Barckhausen, Udo; Rudloff, Alexander (14 February 2012). "Earthquake on a stamp: Emil Wiechert honored". Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union. 93 (7): 67. Bibcode:2012EOSTr..93...67B. doi:10.1029/2012eo070002.
  8. "Oldham, Richard Dixon". Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 10. Charles Scribner's Sons. 2008. p. 203.
  9. "Andrya (Andrija) Mohorovicic". Penn State. Archived from the original on 30 January 2021. Retrieved 30 January 2021.
  10. "Mohorovičić, Andrija". Archived from the original on 30 January 2021. Retrieved 30 January 2021.
  11. "Andrija Mohorovičić (1857–1936)—On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth". Archived from the original on 30 January 2021. Retrieved 30 January 2021.
  12. Andrew McLeish (1992). Geological science (2nd ed.). Thomas Nelson & Sons. p. 122. ISBN   978-0-17-448221-5.
  13. Rudnick, R. L.; Gao, S. (2003-01-01), Holland, Heinrich D.; Turekian, Karl K. (eds.), "3.01 – Composition of the Continental Crust", Treatise on Geochemistry, Pergamon, 3: 659, Bibcode:2003TrGeo...3....1R, doi:10.1016/b0-08-043751-6/03016-4, ISBN   978-0-08-043751-4 , retrieved 2019-11-21
  14. "Reid's Elastic Rebound Theory". 1906 Earthquake. United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  15. Jeffreys, Harold (1926-06-01). "On the Amplitudes of Bodily Seismic Waues". Geophysical Journal International. 1: 334–348. Bibcode:1926GeoJ....1..334J. doi:10.1111/j.1365-246X.1926.tb05381.x. ISSN   1365-246X.
  16. Hjortenberg, Eric (December 2009). "Inge Lehmann's work materials and seismological epistolary archive". Annals of Geophysics. 52 (6). doi:10.4401/ag-4625.
  17. 1 2 3 Gubbins 1990
  18. Schulte et al. 2010
  19. Naderyan, Vahid; Hickey, Craig J.; Raspet, Richard (2016). "Wind-induced ground motion". Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth. 121 (2): 917–930. Bibcode:2016JGRB..121..917N. doi:10.1002/2015JB012478.
  20. Wen & Helmberger 1998
  21. Hall 2011
  22. Plimer, Richard C. SelleyL. Robin M. CocksIan R., ed. (2005-01-01). "Editors". Encyclopaedia of Geology. Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 499–515. doi:10.1016/b0-12-369396-9/90020-0. ISBN   978-0-12-369396-9.
  23. 1 2 Ambraseys, N. N. (1988-12-01). "Engineering seismology: Part I". Earthquake Engineering & Structural Dynamics. 17 (1): 1–50. doi:10.1002/eqe.4290170101. ISSN   1096-9845.
  24. Wiemer, Stefan (2001-05-01). "A Software Package to Analyze Seismicity: ZMAP". Seismological Research Letters. 72 (3): 373–382. doi:10.1785/gssrl.72.3.373. ISSN   0895-0695.
  25. Bird, Peter; Liu, Zhen (2007-01-01). "Seismic Hazard Inferred from Tectonics: California". Seismological Research Letters. 78 (1): 37–48. doi:10.1785/gssrl.78.1.37. ISSN   0895-0695.
  26. Douglas, John; Aochi, Hideo (2008-10-10). "A Survey of Techniques for Predicting Earthquake Ground Motions for Engineering Purposes" (PDF). Surveys in Geophysics. 29 (3): 187–220. Bibcode:2008SGeo...29..187D. doi:10.1007/s10712-008-9046-y. ISSN   0169-3298. S2CID   53066367.
  27. Douglas, John; Edwards, Benjamin (2016-09-01). "Recent and future developments in earthquake ground motion estimation" (PDF). Earth-Science Reviews. 160: 203–219. Bibcode:2016ESRv..160..203D. doi:10.1016/j.earscirev.2016.07.005.
  28. Lee, W. H. K.; S. W. Stewart (1989). "Large-Scale Processing and Analysis of Digital Waveform Data from the USGS Central California Microearthquake Network". Observatory seismology: an anniversary symposium on the occasion of the centennial of the University of California at Berkeley seismographic stations. University of California Press. p. 86. ISBN   9780520065826 . Retrieved 2011-10-12. The CUSP (Caltech-USGS Seismic Processing) System consists of on-line real-time earthquake waveform data acquisition routines, coupled with an off-line set of data reduction, timing, and archiving processes. It is a complete system for processing local earthquake data ...
  29. Akkar, Sinan; Polat, Gülkan; van Eck, Torild, eds. (2010). Earthquake Data in Engineering Seismology: Predictive Models, Data Management and Networks. Geotechnical, Geological and Earthquake Engineering. 14. Springer. p. 194. ISBN   978-94-007-0151-9 . Retrieved 2011-10-19.

Related Research Articles

Geophysics physics of the Earth and its vicinity

Geophysics is a subject of natural science concerned with the physical processes and physical properties of the Earth and its surrounding space environment, and the use of quantitative methods for their analysis. The term geophysics sometimes refers only to geological applications: Earth's shape; its gravitational and magnetic fields; its internal structure and composition; its dynamics and their surface expression in plate tectonics, the generation of magmas, volcanism and rock formation. However, modern geophysics organizations and pure scientists use a broader definition that includes the water cycle including snow and ice; fluid dynamics of the oceans and the atmosphere; electricity and magnetism in the ionosphere and magnetosphere and solar-terrestrial physics; and analogous problems associated with the Moon and other planets.

Seismic wave Seismic, volcanic, or explosive energy that travels through Earths layers

Seismic waves are waves of energy that travel through Earth's layers, and are a result of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, magma movement, large landslides and large man-made explosions that give out low-frequency acoustic energy. Many other natural and anthropogenic sources create low-amplitude waves commonly referred to as ambient vibrations. Seismic waves are studied by geophysicists called seismologists. Seismic wave fields are recorded by a seismometer, hydrophone, or accelerometer.

Seismometer Instrument that records seismic waves by measuring ground motions

A seismometer is an instrument that responds to ground motions, such as caused by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and explosions. Seismometers are usually combined with a timing device and a recording device to form a seismograph. The output of such a device—formerly recorded on paper or film, now recorded and processed digitally—is a seismogram. Such data is used to locate and characterize earthquakes, and to study the Earth's internal structure.


A seismogram is a graph output by a seismograph. It is a record of the ground motion at a measuring station as a function of time. Seismograms typically record motions in three cartesian axes, with the z axis perpendicular to the Earth's surface and the x- and y- axes parallel to the surface. The energy measured in a seismogram may result from an earthquake or from some other source, such as an explosion. Seismograms can record many things, and record many little waves, called microseisms. 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.

Mohorovičić discontinuity Boundary between the Earths crust and the mantle

The Mohorovičić discontinuity, usually referred to as the Moho discontinuity or the Moho, is the boundary between the Earth's crust and the mantle. It is defined by the distinct change in velocity of seismological waves as they pass through changing densities of rock.

Seismic tomography is a technique for imaging the subsurface of the Earth with seismic waves produced by earthquakes or explosions. P-, S-, and surface waves can be used for tomographic models of different resolutions based on seismic wavelength, wave source distance, and the seismograph array coverage. The data received at seismometers are used to solve an inverse problem, wherein the locations of reflection and refraction of the wave paths are determined. This solution can be used to create 3D images of velocity anomalies which may be interpreted as structural, thermal, or compositional variations. Geoscientists use these images to better understand core, mantle, and plate tectonic processes.

Andrija Mohorovičić

Andrija Mohorovičić was a Croatian geophysicist. He is best known for the eponymous Mohorovičić discontinuity and is considered as one of the founders of modern seismology.

P wave

A P wave is one of the two main types of elastic body waves, called seismic waves in seismology. P waves travel faster than other seismic waves and hence are the first signal from an earthquake to arrive at any affected location or at a seismograph. P waves may be transmitted through gases, liquids, or solids.

The Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) is the scientific research center of the Columbia Climate School, and a unit of The Earth Institute at Columbia University. It focuses on climate and earth sciences and is located on a 189-acre campus in Palisades, New York, 18 miles (29 km) north of Manhattan on the Hudson River.


Earthscope was an National Science Foundation (NSF) funded earth science program that, from 2003-2018, used geological and geophysical techniques to explore the structure and evolution of the North American continent and to understand the processes controlling earthquakes and volcanoes. The project had three components: USArray, the Plate Boundary Observatory, and the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth. Organizations associated with the project included UNAVCO, the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), Stanford University, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Several international organizations also contributed to the initiative. EarthScope data are publicly accessible.

Seismic magnitude scales are used to describe the overall strength or "size" of an earthquake. These are distinguished from seismic intensity scales that categorize the intensity or severity of ground shaking (quaking) caused by an earthquake at a given location. Magnitudes are usually determined from measurements of an earthquake's seismic waves as recorded on a seismogram. Magnitude scales vary on what aspect of the seismic waves are measured and how they are measured. Different magnitude scales are necessary because of differences in earthquakes, the information available, and the purposes for which the magnitudes are used.

The Richter scale – also called the Richter magnitude scale or Richter's magnitude scale – is a measure of the strength of earthquakes, developed by Charles Francis Richter and presented in his landmark 1935 paper, where he called it the "magnitude scale". This was later revised and renamed the local magnitude scale, denoted as ML or ML .

Paul Silver

Paul Gordon Silver was an American seismologist. A member of the research staff at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington since 1982, Paul Silver made a series of important contributions to the investigation of seismic anisotropy and to earthquake research by observing the slow redistribution of stress and strain along fault zones.

Lunar seismology Study of ground motions of the Moon

Lunar seismology is the study of ground motions of the Moon and the events, typically impacts or moonquakes, that excite them.

An ocean-bottom seismometer (OBS) is a seismometer that is designed to record the earth motion under oceans and lakes from man-made sources and natural sources.

Harry Oscar Wood was an American seismologist who made several significant contributions in the field of seismology in the early twentieth-century. Following the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, California, Wood expanded his background of geology and mineralogy and his career took a change of direction into the field of seismology. In the 1920s he co-developed the torsion seismometer, a device tuned to detect short-period seismic waves that are associated with local earthquakes. In 1931 Wood, along with another seismologist, redeveloped and updated the Mercalli intensity scale, a seismic intensity scale that is still in use as a primary means of rating an earthquake's effects.

Lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary A level representing a mechanical difference between layers in Earth’s inner structure

The lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary represents a mechanical difference between layers in Earth's inner structure. Earth's inner structure can be described both chemically and mechanically. The lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary lies between Earth's cooler, rigid lithosphere and the warmer, ductile asthenosphere. The actual depth of the boundary is still a topic of debate and study, although it is known to vary according to the environment.

Miaki Ishii is a seismologist and Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University.

Travel-time curve

Travel Time means time for the seismic waves to travel from the focus of an earthquake through the crust to a certain seismograph station. Travel-time curve is a graph showing the relationship between the distance from the epicenter to the observation point and the travel time. Travel-time curve is drawn when the vertical axis of the graph is the travel time and the horizontal axis is the epicenter distance of each observation point.