Skip to main content




Disturbances within Earth's interior, which is in a constant state of movement, result in the release of energy in packets known as seismic waves. An area of geophysics known as seismology is the study of these waves and their effects, which often can be devastating when experienced in the form of earthquakes. The latter do not only take lives and destroy buildings, but they also produce secondary effects, most often in the form of a tsunami, or tidal wave. Using seismographs and seismometers, seismologists study earthquakes and other seismic phenomena, including volcanoes and even explosions resulting from nuclear testing. They measure earthquakes according to their magnitude or energy as well as their intensity or human impact. Seismology also is used to study Earth's interior, about which it has revealed a great deal.


Stress and Strain in Earth's Interior

Modern earth scientists' studies in seismology, as in many other areas, are informed by plate tectonics, and to understand the causes of earthquakes and volcanoes, it is necessary to understand the basics of tectonics as well as plate tectonics theory. The latter subject is discussed in depth within a separate essay, which the reader is encouraged to consult for a more detailed explanation of concepts covered briefly here.

The term tectonism refers to deformation of the lithosphere, the upper layer of Earth's interior. Tectonics is the study of this deformation, which results from the release and redistribution of energy from Earth's core. The core is an extremely dense region, composed primarily of iron and another, lighter element (possibly sulfur), and is divided between a solid inner core with a radius of about 760 mi. (1,220 km) and a liquid outer core about 1,750 mi. (2,820 km) thick.

Earth's core possesses enormous energy, both gravitational and thermal. Gravitational energy is a result of the core's great mass (see Gravity and Geodesy for more about the role of mass in gravity), while thermal energy results from the radioactive decay of elements. In the context of radioactivity, decay does not mean "rot" rather, it refers to the release of high-energy particles. The release of these particles results in the generation of thermal energy, commonly referred to as heat. (See Energy and Earth for more about the scientific definition of heat as well as a discussion of geothermal energy.)

Differences in mass and temperature within the planet's interior, known as pressure gradients, result in the deformation of rocks in the lithosphere. The lithosphere includes the brittle upper portion of the mantle, a dense layer of rock approximately 1,429 mi. (2,300 km) thick, as well as the crust, which varies in depth from 3 mi. to 37 mi. (5-60 km). Deformation is the result of stressthat is, tension (stretching), compression, or shear. (The last of these stresses results from equal and opposite forces that do not act along the same line. To visualize shear, one need only imagine a thick hardbound book with its front cover pushed from the side so that the covers and pages are no longer perfectly aligned.)

Under the effects of these stresses, rocks experience strain, or a change in dimension as they bend, warp, slide, break, flow as though they were liquids, or melt. This strain, in turn, leads to a release of energy in the form of seismic waves. These waves may cause faults, or fractures, as well as folds, or bends in the rock structure, which manifest on the surface in the form of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other varieties of seismic activity. Seismology is the study of these waves as well as the movements and vibrations that produce them.

Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics

The theory of continental drift, discussed in Plate Tectonics, is based on the idea that the configuration of Earth's continents was once different thanit is today. Integral to this theory is the accompanying idea that some of the individual land masses of today once were joined in other continental forms and that the land masses later moved totheir present locations.

Continental drift theory was introduced in 1915 by the German geophysicist and meteorologist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), but it failed to gain acceptance for half a century, in large part because it offered no explanation as to how the continents drifted. That explanation came in the 1960s with the development of plate tectonics, the name both of a theory and of a specialization of tectonics. As an area of study, plate tectonics deals with the large features of the lithosphere and the forces that shape them. As a theory, it explains the processes that have shaped Earth in terms of plates (large movable segments of the lithosphere) and their movement.


There are several major plates, some of which are listed in Plate Tectonics. That essay also discusses modern theories regarding the means by which continents broke apart many millions of years ago and then drifted back together, slamming into one another to form a number of notable features, such as the high mountains between the Indian subcontinent and the Eurasian landmass. Nor have the continents stopped moving; they continue to do so, though at a rate too slow to be noticed in a lifetime or even over the course of several generations. Based on its current rate of movement, in another 6,000 yearsapproximately the span of time since human civilization beganNorth America will have drifted about 600 ft. (183 m).

For the most part, the continents we know today are composed of single plates. For instance, South America sits on its own plate, which includes the southwestern quadrant of the Atlantic. But there are exceptions, an example being India itself, which is part of the Indo-Australian plate. Also notable is the Juan de Fuca Plate, a small portion of land attached to the North American continent and comprising the region from northern California to southern British Columbia.

It so happens that this area is home to an unusual amount of volcanic activity. Southern California, where the North American and Pacific plates meet on the San Andreas fault, also is extremely prone to earthquakes, as is Japan, whose islands straddle the Philippine, Eurasian, and Pacific plates. Hawaii is another site of seismic activity in the form of volcanoes, but it does not lie at the nexus of any major plates. Instead, it is situated squarely atop the Pacific Plate, which is moving northward over a hot spot, a region of high volcanic activity. The hot spot remains more or less stationary, while the Pacific Plate moves across it; this explains why the volcanoes of northern Hawaii are generally dormant, whereas many volcanoes in the southern part of the island chain are still active.

Plates interact by moving toward each other (convergence), away from each other (divergence), or past each other (transform motion). When a continental plate converges with an oceanic plate (the differences between these types are discussed in Plate Tectonics), the much sturdier continental plate plows over the oceanic one. This is called subduction. The subducted plate undergoes partial melting, leading to the formation of volcanic chains, as in the nexus of the Juan de Fuca and Pacific or the South American and Nazca plates. The subduction of the Nazca Plate, which lies to the west of South America, helped form the Andes. Transform margins result in the formation of faults and earthquake zones, an example being the volatile San Andreas Fault.

Seismic Waves

The first scientific description of seismic waves was that of John William Strutt, Baron Rayleigh (1842-1919), who in 1885 characterized them as having aspects both of longitudinal and of transverse waves. These are, respectively, waves in which the movement of vibration is in the same direction as the wave itself and those in which the vibration or motion is perpendicular to the direction in which the wave is moving. (Ocean waves, for example, are longitudinal, whereas sound waves are transverse.)

Rayleigh waves later would be distinguished from Love waves, named after the English mathematician and geophysicist Augustus Edward Hough Love (1863-1940). The motion of Love waves is entirely horizontal, or longitudinal. Both are examples of surface waves, or seismic waves whose line of propagation is along the surface of a medium, such as the solid earth. These waves tend to be slower and more destructive than body waves, defined as waves whose line of propagation is through the body of a medium. Body waves include P-waves (primary waves), which are extremely fast moving and longitudinal, and S-waves (secondary waves), which move somewhat less fast and are transverse. The respective waves' rates of propagation through the solid earth are as follows:

  • P-waves: about 4 mi. (6.4 km) per second
  • S-waves: about 2 mi. (3.2 km) per second
  • Rayleigh and Love waves: less than 2 mi. per second


The Lisbon Quake and Its Effects

On November 1, 1755, the Portuguese capital of Lisbon became the site of one of the worst earthquakes in European history. The event had a number of aftereffects, natural and immediate as well as human and longer term. The results from nature were devastating; the earthquake caused a tsunami, or tidal wave, that flooded the Tagus River even as a fire, also caused by the earthquake, raged through the city.

Estimates of the deaths related directly or indirectly to the Lisbon quake range from 10,000 to as many as 60,000, making it the worst European earthquake since 1531. That earlier quake, incidentally, also had occurred in Lisbonanother example of the fact that certain areas are more prone to seismic activity. It so happens that Portugal lies near the boundary between the Eurasian and African plates.

As for the human response to the quake, it is best represented by the French writer Voltaire (1694-1778). Always a critic of religious faith, Voltaire saw in the incident evidence that called into question Christians' belief in a loving God. He made this case both in the philosophical poem Le désastre de Lisbonne (The disaster of Lisbon, 1756) and, more memorably, in the satirical novel Candide (1759).


Another, much less famous, thinker responded to the Lisbon earthquake in quite a different fashion. This was English geologist and astronomer John Michell (ca. 1724-1793), who studied the event and concluded that quakes are accompanied by shock waves. In an article published in 1760, he noted that earthquakes are found to occur near volcanoes and suggested that they are caused by pressure produced by water that boils from volcanic heat. He also indicated that one can calculate the center of an earthquake by making note of the time at which the motions are felt.

Today Michell is regarded as the father of seismology, a discipline that began to mature in the nineteenth century. The name itself was coined by the Irish engineer Robert Mallet (1810-1881), who in 1846 compiled the first modern catalogue of earthquakes. Eleven years after publishing the book, which listed all known quakes of any significance since 1606 b.c., Mallet conducted experiments with shock waves by exploding gunpowder and measuring the rate at which the waves travel through various types of material.

Detecting and Measuring Seismic Activity

As noted earlier, seismology is concerned with seismic waves, which generally are caused by movements within the solid earth. These waves also may be produced by man-made sources. Seismologic studies assist miners in knowing how much dynamite to use for a quarry blast so as to be effective without destroying the mine itself or the resources being sought. In addition, seismology can be used to reveal the location of such materials as coal and oil.

Thanks to seismometers (instruments for detecting seismic waves) and seismographs, which record information regarding those waves, seismologists are able to detect not only natural seismic activity but also the effects of underground nuclear testing. Underground testing is banned by international treaty, and if a "rogue nation" were to conduct such testing, it would come to the attention of the World-Wide Standardized Seismograph Network (WWSSN), which consists of 120 seismic stations in some 60 countries.

Most of the remainder of this essay is devoted to a single type of seismic phenomenon: earthquakes. As noted, they are far from the only effect of seismic activity; however, they are the most prevalent and well documented. A close second would be volcanoes, which are discussed in the essay Mountains.


In a.d. 132, the Chinese scientist Chang Heng (78-139) constructed what may have been the first seismographic instrument, which was designed to detect not only the presence of seismic activity but also the direction from which it came. His invention ultimately was discarded, however, and understanding of earthquakes progressed little for more than 1,600 years.

The first crude seismograph was invented in 1703 by the French physicist Jean de Hautefeuille (1647-1724), long before Michell formally established a connection between shock waves and earthquakes. Historians date the starting point of modern seismographic monitoring, however, to an 1880 invention by the English geologist John Milne (1850-1913). Milne's creation, the first precise seismograph, measured motion with a horizontal pendulum attached to a pen that recorded movement on a revolving drum. Milne used his device to record earthquakes from as far away as Japan and helped establish seismologic stations around the world. The first modern seismograph in the United States was installed at the University of California at Berkeley and proved its accuracy in recording the 1906 San Francisco quake, discussed later in this essay.


An earthquake can be measured according to either its magnitude or its intensity. The first refers to the amount of energy released by the earthquake, and its best-known scale of measurement is the Richter scale. Developed in 1935 by the American geophysicist Charles Richter (1900-1985), the Richter scale is logarithmic rather than arithmetic, meaning that increases in value involve multiplication rather than addition.

The numbers on the Richter scale, from 1.0 to 10.0, should be thought of as exponents rather than integers. Each whole-number increase represents a tenfold increase in the amplitude (size from crest to trough) of the seismic wave. Therefore 2.0 is not twice as much as 1.0; it is 10 times as much. To go from 1.0 to 3.0 is an increase by a factor of 100, and to go from 1.0 to 4.0 indicates an increase by a factor of 1,000. The scales of magnitude thus become ever greater, and while a whole-number increase on the Richter scale indicates an increase of amplitude by a factor of 10, it represents an increase of energy by a factor of about 31.


The amplitude and energy measured by the Richter scale are objective and quantitative, whereas intensity is more subjective and qualitative. Intensity, an indication of the earthquake's effect on human beings and structures, is measured by the Mercalli scale, named after the Italian seismologist Giuseppe Mercalli (1850-1914). The 12 levels on the Mercalli scale range from I, which means that few people felt the quake, to XII, which indicates total damage. A few comparisons serve to illustrate the scales' relationship to each other.

A score of I on the Mercalli scale equates to a value between 1.0 and a 3.0 on the Richter scale and indicates a tremor felt only by a very few people under very specific circumstances. At 5.0 to 5.9 on the Richter scale (VI to VII on the Mercalli scale), everyone feels the earthquake, and many people are frightened, but only the most poorly built structures are damaged significantly. Above 7.0 on the Richter scale and VIII on the Mercalli scale, wooden and then masonry structures collapse, as do bridges, while railways are bent completely out of shape. In populated areas, as we shall see, the death toll can be enormous.

Famous Quakes

The great San Francisco earthquake, which struck on April 18, 1906, spawned a massive fire, and these events resulted in the deaths of some 700 people, including 270 inmates of a mental institution. Another 300,000 people were left homeless, and 490 city blocks were destroyed. Ultimately, the financial impact of the San Francisco quake proved to be one of the contributing factors in the March 13, 1907, stock market crash that played a key role in the panic of 1907.

At 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989, another quake struck San Francisco. It lasted just 15 seconds, long enough to kill some 90 people and cause $6 billion in property damage. Though it was the biggest quake since the 1906 tremor, it was much smaller: 7.19 on the Richter scale, or about one-fifth of the 7.7 measured for the 1906 quake. The 1989 Loma Prieta quake cost much more than the earlier tragedy, which had caused $500 million in damage, but, of course, half a billion dollars in 1906 was worth a great deal more than $6 billion 83 years later.

Neither earthquake, however, was the greatest in American history; in fact, the 1989 quake does not rank among the top 15, even for the continental United States. The eight worst earthquakes in U.S. history all occurred in one state: Alaska. Greatest of all was the March 27, 1964, quake at Prince William Sound, which registered a staggering 9.2 on the Richter scale and took 125 lives. Of that number, 110 were killed in a tsunami resulting from the quake.

The high incidence of earthquakes in Alaska is understandable enough, given the fact that its southern edge abuts a subduction zone and, along with the panhandle, sits astride the boundary between the North American and Pacific plates. Although this may not be much comfort to people in Alaska, it is fortunate that the most earthquake-prone state is also the most sparsely populated. Had the epicenter (the point on Earth's surface directly above the hypocenter, or focal point from which a quake originates) of the 1964 earthquake been in New York City, the death toll would have been closer to 125,000 than 125.


Similarly, it is fortunate that the greatest quakes to strike the continental United States outside California have been in low-population centers. Of the 15 worst earthquakes in U.S. history, only one was outside Alaska, California, or Hawaii. In fact, it was the site of both the worst and the fifth-worst earthquakes in the continental United States: New Madrid, Missouri, site of a 7.9 quake on February 7, 1812, and a 7.7 quake just two months earlier, on December 16, 1811.

New Madrid lies at the extreme southeastern tip of Missouri, near the Mississippi River and within a few hundred miles of several major cities: St. Louis, Missouri; Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; and Louisville, Kentucky. Had the 1811 and 1812 quakes occurred today, they undoubtedly would have taken a vast human toll owing to the resulting floods. As it was, some lakes rose by as much as 15 ft. (4.6 m), streams changed direction, and the Mississippi and Ohio rivers flowed backward. Fortunately, however, they occurred at a time when the Missouri Territoryit was not even a state yetand surrounding areas were sparsely populated. The combined death toll was in the single digits.

Of the top 15 earthquakes in the continental United States, all but the 1906 San Francisco quake (which ranks sixth) took place in areas with small populations. Ten were in California but generally in less populous areas or at times when there were fewer people there (e.g., no. 2: Fort Tejon, 1857; no. 3: Owens Valley, 1872; and no. 4: Imperial Valley, 1892). Other than the two New Madrid quakes, the remainder took place in Nevada (no. 12: Dixie Valley, 1954), Montana (no. 13: Hebgen Lake, 1959), and Idaho (no. 14: Borah Peak, 1983). As of late 2001, the Idaho quake was the second most recent, after no. 9, at Landers, California, in 1992. (The 1994 Northridge quake, in the Los Angeles area, ranked 6.7 on the Richter scale, well below the 7.3 registered by no. 15, west of Eureka, California, in 1922.)


None of these U.S. quakes, however, compares with the July 27, 1976, earthquake in T'ang-shan, China. The worst earthquake in modern history, it shattered some 20 sq. mi. (32 km sq.) near the capital city of Beijing and killed about 242,000 people while injuring an estimated 600,000 more. There are several interesting aspects to this quake, aside from its sheer scale.

One is sociological, involving the human response to the quake. As in Portugal in 1755, people saw events in a cosmic light; in this case, though, they did not interpret the quake as evidence of divine unconcern but quite the opposite. Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), by far the most influential Chinese leader of modern times, had just died, and the Chinese saw the natural disaster as fitting into a larger historical pattern. In the traditional Chinese view, earthquakes, floods, and other signs from the gods attend the change of dynasties.

Also interesting is the fact that the T'angshan quake was merely the most destructive in a worldwide series of quakes that took place between February and November 1976. In the course of these events, 23,000 people died in Guatemala after a February 4 quake; 3,000 people were reported dead, and 3,000 more were missing in Indonesia, as a result of a series of quakes and landslides on June 26 (later, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, placed the number of dead from the Indonesia quake at just 443); as many as 8,000 people died in an earthquake and tsunami that hit the southern Philippines on August 16; and 4,000 more perished in a November 24 quake in eastern Turkey.

Similarly, a few months before the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, a quake hit northern Iran. This is an aspect of seismology that cannot be explained readily by plate tectonics: Iran and Portugal are not on the same plate margins; in fact, northern Iran is not on a plate margin at all. Likewise, the areas hit in the 1976 quakes were not on the same plate margins, and T'ang-shan (unlike the other places affected) is not on a major plate margin at all. Nor is Shansi in north-central China, site of history's most destructive earthquake on January 24, 1556, which killed more than 830,000 people.

Note that the 1556 and 1976 Chinese quakes were the worst, respectively, of all history and of modern timesbut worst in terms of intensity, not magnitude. One might say that they were the most destructive but not the worst in pure terms. The 1976 quake is not even on the list of the 10 worst earthquakesthose of the greatest magnitudein the twentieth century. Whereas the T'ang-shan quake registered 8.0, a quake in Chile on May 22, 1960, had a magnitude of 9.5, or about 50 times greater, yet the death toll was much smaller2,000 people killed. Three thousand more were injured in the Chilean quake, and two million were rendered homeless. The last statistic perhaps best signifies the magnitude of the 1960 quake, which caused tsunamis that brought death and destruction as far away as Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, and the west coast of the United States.

Learning from Seismology

As noted, plate tectonics does not explain every earthquake, but it does explain most, probably about 90%. Not that it is much help in predicting earthquakes, because the processes of plate tectonics take place on an entirely different time scale than the ones to which humans are accustomed. These processes happen over millions of years, so it is hard to say, for any particular year, just what will happen to a particular plate.

Plate tectonics, then, tells us only areas of likelihood for earthquakesspecifically, plate boundaries of the types discussed near the end of Plate Tectonics. And even though the processes that create the conditions for an earthquake are extremely slow, usually the discernible indications that an earthquake is coming appear only seconds before the quake itself. Thus, as sophisticated as modern seismometers are, they generally do not provide enough advance notice of earthquakes to offer any lifesaving value.

There are not just a few earthquakes each year but many thousands of tremors, most of them too small to register. Sometimes these tremors may be foreshocks, or indicators that a quake is coming to a particular area. In addition, studies of other phenomena, from tidal behavior to that of animals (probably a result of some creatures' extremely acute hearing), may offer suggestions as to the locations of future quakes.


Seismology is useful for learning about more than just earthquakes or volcanoes. During the early years of the twentieth century, the Irish geologist Richard Dixon Oldham (1858-1936) studied data from a number of recent earthquakes and noticed a difference in the behavior of compression waves and shear waves. (These terms merely express the differences in stress produced by seismic waves.) As it turns out, shear waves are deflected as they pass through the center of Earth. Since liquid cannot experience shear, this finding told him that the planet's core must be made of molten material.

Oldham's findings, published in 1906the same year as the great San Francisco quakemade him a pioneer in the application of seismology to the study of Earth's interior. Three years later, studies of earthquake waves by the Croatian geologist Andrija Mohorovicic (1857-1936) revealed still more about the interior of the planet. Based on his analysis of wave speeds and arrival times, Mohorovicic was able to calculate the depth at which the crust becomes the mantle. This change is abrupt rather than gradual, and the boundary on which it occurs is today known as the Mohorovicic discontinuity, or simply the Moho.


Abbott, Patrick. Natural Disasters. Dubuque, IA: WilliamC. Brown Publishers, 1996.

National Earthquake Information CenterWorld Data Center for Seismology, Denver (Web site). <>.

Prager, Ellen J., Kate Hutton, Costas Synolakis, et al. Furious Earth: The Science and Nature of Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Tsunamis. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Seismology Info PageNetherlands (Web site). <>.

Seismology Research CentreAustralia (Web site). <>.

Sigurdsson, Haraldur. Encyclopedia of Volcanoes. San Diego: Academic Press, 2000.

Sleh, Keery E., and Simon LeVay. The Earth in Turmoil: Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Their Impact on Humankind. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1998.

University of Alaska Fairbanks Seismology (Web site). <>.

University of Washington Seismology and Earthquake Information (Web site). <>.

"Earthquake Hazards Program," USGS (United States Geological Survey) (Web site). <>.

Wade, Nicholas. The Science Times Book of Natural Disasters. New York: Lyons Press, 2000.



The maximum displacement of a vibrating material, or the "size" of a wave from crest to trough.


Waves whose line of propagation is through the body of a medium. These include P-waves (primary waves), which move extremely fast and arelongitudinal, and S-waves (secondary waves), which are move somewhat less fast and are transverse. Compare with surface waves.


A form of stress produced by the action of equal and opposite forces, the effect of which is to reduce the length of a material. Compression is a form of pressure.


The theory that the configuration of Earth's continents was once different than it is today, that some of the individual landmasses of today once were joined in other continental forms, and that these landmasses later separated and moved to their present locations.


A tectonic process whereby plates move toward each other. Usually associated with subduction, convergence typically occurs in the ocean, creating an oceanic trench. It is one of the three ways, along with divergence and transform motion, that plates interact.


The center of Earth, an area constituting about 16% of the planet's volume and 32% of its mass. Made primarily of iron and another, lighter element (possibly sulfur), it is divided between a solid inner core with a radius of about 760 mi. (1,220 km) and a liquid outer core about1,750 mi. (2,820 km) thick.


The uppermost division of the solid earth, representing less than 1% of its volume and varying in depth from 3-37 mi. (5-60 km). Below the crust is the mantle.


A tectonic process whereby plates move away from each other. Divergence results in the separation of plates and most often is associated either with seafloor spreading or the formation of rift valleys. It is one of the three ways, along with convergence and transform motion, that plates interact.


The response of solids to stress.


The point on Earth's surface directly above the hypocenter, or the focal point from which an earthquake originates.


An area of fracturing, as a result of stress, between rocks.


An area of rock that has been bent by stress.


A branch of the earth sciences that combines aspects of geology and physics. Geophysics addresses the planet's physical processes as well as its gravitational, magnetic, and electric properties and the means by which energy is transmitted through its interior.


Internal thermal energy that flows from one body of matter to another.


A region of high volcanic activity.


Where earthquakes areconcerned, intensity refers to the amount of damage to humans and buildings. Subjective and qualitative (as opposed to magnitude, which is objective and quantitative), intensity is measured by the Mercalliscale.


The energy that an object possesses by virtue of its motion.


The upper layer of Earth's interior, including the crust and the brittle portion at the top of the mantle.


A wave in which the movement of vibration is in the same direction as the wave itself. This is contrasted with a transverse wave.


See surface waves.


Where earthquakes areconcerned, magnitude refers to the amount of energy released by the quake as well as the amplitude of the seismic waves. Objective and quantitative (as opposed to intensity, which is subjective and qualitative), magnitude is measured by the Richter scale.


The thick, dense layer of rock, approximately 1,429 mi. (2,300 km) thick, between Earth's crust and its core. In reference to the other terrestrial planets, mantle simply means the area of dense rock between the crust and core.


See intensity.


Boundaries between plates.


The name both of a theory and of a specialization of tectonics. As an area of study, plate tectonics deals with the large features of the lithosphere and the forces that shape them. As atheory, it explains the processes that have shaped Earth in terms of plates and their movement. Plate tectonics theory brings together aspects of continental drift, seafloor spreading, seismic and volcanic activity, and the structures of Earth's crust to provide a unifying model of Earth's evolution. It is one of the dominant concepts in the modern earth sciences.


Large, movable segments of the lithosphere.


The act or state of traveling from one place to another.


See body waves.


A term describing a phenomenon whereby certain materials are subject to a form of decay brought about by the emission of high-energy particles or radiation. Forms of particles or energy include alpha particles (positively charged helium nuclei); beta particles (either electrons or subatomic particles called positrons ); or gamma rays, which occupy the highest energy level in the electromagnetic spectrum.


See surface waves.


See magnitude.


A packet of energy resulting from the disturbance that accompanies a strain on rocks in the lithosphere.


An instrument designed to record information regarding seismic waves.


The study of seismic waves as well as the movements and vibrations that produce them.


An instrument for detecting seismic waves.


A form of stress resulting from equal and opposite forces that do not act along the same line. If a thick, hard-bound book is lying flat and one pushes the front cover from the side so that the covers and pages no longer constitute parallel planes, this is an example of shear.


The ratio between the change in dimension experienced by an object that has been subjected to stress and the original dimensions of the object.


In general terms, any attempt to deform a solid. Types of stress includetension, compression, and shear.


A tectonic process thatresults when plates converge, and one plate forces the other down into Earth's mantle. As a result, the subducted plate eventually undergoes partial melting.


Seismic waves whose line of propagation is along the surface of a medium such as the solid earth. These waves tend to be slower and more destructive than body waves. Examples include Rayleigh waves (waves with both transverse and longitudinal characteristics) and Love waves (purely longitudinal). Compare with body waves.


See body waves.


The study of tectonism, including its causes and effects, most notably mountain building.


The deformation of the lithosphere.


A form of stress produced by a force that acts to stretch a material.


Heat energy, a form of kinetic energy produced by the motion of atomic or molecular particles in relation to one another. The greater the relative motion of these particles, the greater the thermal energy.


A tectonic process whereby plates slide past eachother. It is one of the three ways, along with convergence and divergence, that plates interact.


A wave in which the vibration or motion is perpendicular to the direction in which the wave is moving. Compare with longitudinal wave.


A tidal wave produced by an earthquake or volcanic eruption. The term comes from the Japanese words for "harbor" and "wave."

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Seismology." Science of Everyday Things. . 30 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Seismology." Science of Everyday Things. . (April 30, 2017).

"Seismology." Science of Everyday Things. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from


seismology (sīzmŏl´əjē, sīs–), scientific study of earthquakes and related phenomena, including the propagation of waves and shocks on or within the earth by natural or artificially generated seismic signals.

Seismographic Instruments

Instruments used to detect and record seismic disturbances are known as seismographs. Those in use today vary somewhat in design and function, but generally a heavy mass, either a pendulum or a large permanent magnet, is connected to a mechanical or optical recording device. When earthquake tremors occur, the pendulum or the magnet, because of inertia, remains still as the earth moves beneath, with the relative motion between the earth and the instrument magnified mainly by electrical amplifying apparatus. The graphic record, called the seismogram, can be used to establish information about an earthquake, e.g., its severity and distance. By using three instruments, each set to respond to motions from a different direction (north-south horizontal, east-west horizontal, and vertical), both the distance and the direction of the earth movement can be determined. Three or more widely spaced seismographic stations are required to pinpoint the location of earthquakes in remote regions.

Although seismographs have been used since their invention by John Milne in 1880, until the end of the 20th cent. their placement was limited to land areas, creating conspicuous gaps in global seismic coverage under the oceans that cover most of the earth's surface. During the late 1990s geologists began to create an underwater network of geological observatories using undersea coaxial cables no longer used for communications. This enabled the more precise detection and measurement of seismic disturbances occurring between the continental land masses.

Development of Seismology

The American scientist John Winthrop (1714–79), often called the founder of seismology, was one of the first to make scientific studies of earthquakes. By analyzing seismic data from a 1909 earthquake near Zagreb (now in Croatia), the Austro-Hungarian meteorologist Andrija Mohorovičić discovered a boundary between the crust and mantle, now called the Mohorovičić discontinuity or Moho. Seismological studies were furthered by the U.S. seismologist Charles F. Richter, who invented the Richter scale to determine an earthquake's magnitude. Each successive point on the logarithmic scale represents an increase by a factor of 10 in wave amplitude. A modified Mercalli scale, originally developed by the Italian seismologist Giuseppe Mercalli, is also based on the earthquake's effects on the surface.

Applications of Seismology

One aspect of seismology is concerned with measuring the speeds at which seismic waves travel through the earth. Past earthquake studies have shown that P, or primary/compressional, waves travel fastest through the earth; S, or secondary/transverse, waves cannot pass through liquids, allowing scientists to discern the earth's many boundary layers known as the crust, mantle, and core. For example, the disappearance of S waves below 1,800 mi (2,900 km) shows that the outer core of the earth is liquid. Seismologists also prepare seismic risk maps for earthquake-prone countries; these indicate the degree of seismic danger. In addition, seismologists use earthquake data to determine plate boundaries (see plate tectonics); active earthquake areas generally coincide with plate margins, both destructive and growing, and transform faults.

An important commercial application of seismology is its use in prospecting for oil deposits. The first oil field to be discovered by this method was found in Texas in 1924. A portable seismograph is set up in the area to be investigated, and an explosive energy source is activated nearby; formerly, explosives such as dynamite were used to create the seismic waves, but they have been largely replaced by high-energy vibrators on land and air-gun arrays at sea. The waves generated are received by detectors known as geophones; on land, these are commonly placed in a fan-shaped pattern on the ground. From an interpretation of the waves created by the energy source and recorded by the seismograph, the detection of geological structures in which oil may be trapped is possible.

Seismic methods are sometimes used to locate subsurface water and to detect the underlying structure of the oceanic and continental crust. With the development of underground testing of nuclear devices, seismographic stations for their detection were set up throughout the world. Under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (signed 1996 but not yet in force) an international monitoring system has been set up which includes many seismic stations; the detailed data collected is also used by contributing nations for purposes other than monitoring nuclear tests.


See B. F. Howell, An Introduction to Seismological Research: History and Development (1990); T. Lay and T. C. Wallace, eds., Modern Global Seismology (1995); H. A. Doyle, Seismology (1996). See also bibliography under earthquake.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"seismology." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 30 Apr. 2017 <>.

"seismology." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (April 30, 2017).

"seismology." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from



Seismology is the science that studies earthquakes and phenomena connected with them. Seismology is a branch of geophysics.

Seismology attempts to explain the origin of earthquakes, where, when, and why they occur, what accompanies them, and how to forecast them. Earthquakes were mentioned in written historical documents as early several thousands of years ago, but their serious study began only in the nineteenth century. As a rough guide, the earthquake is a vibration of the ground tangible in a definite place; the stronger these vibrations are, the more damage an earthquake can cause.

Two variables are usually used for describing the earthquake power: magnitude and intensity. Magnitude is an objective parameter, which is connected with the ground displacement at the point of its measurement; the bigger the displacement, the stronger is the earthquake. Earthquakes with magnitudes bigger than 56 are considered powerful ones. Intensity is a parameter that is not measured by a device. Different factors are taken into account to determine the intensity of an earthquake, and its value varies relative to locations accessed. The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale determines earthquake intensity in the United States by gathering information, including witness accounts and building damage, and assigning a numeral scale from I (low intensity, no earth movement felt) to XII (visible earth movement seen, severe building damage).

The earth's crust , the upper layer of Earth's surface, consists of a solid medium with different values of parameters in different points, and is exposed to permanent action of different forces, which are also irregular. Action of these forces can lead to a situation in which some parts of the crust can occur under the condition of very high tension (for example, like a rod that is curved). If the tension remains too high, the crust is damaged in some points (the rod is broken). In this case, a very big amount of energy becomes free, and this energy transfers into elastic waves of different kinds, which can spread to great distances from the damage point. This illustrates a simplified model of an earthquake.

It is possible to distinguish the areas where earthquakes occur more often than in other places. Usually, these are mountain areas, and areas circumambient the Pacific (Japan, for example). Seismology studies these areas together with geology , in which during the late nineteenth century arose the special theory (plate tectonics ) which explains a set of phenomena, in particular the occurrence of active seismic zones and non-active zones (platform regions). Earthquakes are practically nonexistent in nonactive zones (for example, the Russian platform can be referred to as one of these regions).

Both seismology and geology use the achievements of physics (such as elasticity theory and hydrodynamics) in the creation of theories such as plate tectonics. In studying earthquakes, the oscillation theory and the theory of wave propagation in elastic media are used. The main devices used for earthquake study are seismometers, which record media oscillations at the point of the device location. Nowadays, such devices are located in many points on the earth's surface, on the ocean bottom, in shaftsoften they are joined in special nets. The analysis of seismometers (seismograms), which take into account wave propagation theory, performs another important role; it permits scientists to understand deep-Earth structure. Even with improved theory, calculation methods, and equipment used in seismology, reliable forecasts of earthquakes still cannot be achieved.

Another important aspect of seismology is that its applied methods permit scientists to search useful minerals , especially oil. Seismologic methods also give the most precise results in underground nuclear tests control.

See also Earth, interior structure; Faults and fractures; Mid-ocean ridges and rifts; Mid-plate earthquakes; Petroleum detection; Richter scale; Subduction zone

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Seismology." World of Earth Science. . 30 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Seismology." World of Earth Science. . (April 30, 2017).

"Seismology." World of Earth Science. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from

seismic stratigraphy

seismic stratigraphy (seismostratigraphy) The study and interpretation of information obtained by seismic-reflection profiling in order to construct subsurface stratigraphic cross-sections. Analysis of seismic reflections on a seismic section (see SEISMIC RECORD) can identify buried stratal surfaces that, when traced laterally and continuously, represent surfaces of synchronous deposition or their correlative unconformity surfaces. The character of a reflection may vary as the seismic profile moves across a facies boundary, but the continued presence of the reflection is of chronostratigraphic significance. More detailed information regarding the age and lithology of the subsurface strata may be gathered by means of geophysical well logging. See also CHRONOSTRATIGRAPHIC CORRELATION CHART; and DEPOSITIONAL SEQUENCE.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"seismic stratigraphy." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . 30 Apr. 2017 <>.

"seismic stratigraphy." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . (April 30, 2017).

"seismic stratigraphy." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from

seismic tomography

seismic tomography A range of methods in which the subsurface is divided into a box-grid whose elements are illuminated by seismic rays and the physical character of each element computed. The results are displayed as colour-coded contour maps of subsurface planes. In borehole tomography, two holes are used; a source is moved up one while detectors record along the length of the other. By using a succession of shot positions, most of the box elements in the plane linking the two boreholes are illuminated satisfactorily. Seismic tomography is used to study geologic structures in detail. It has been extended to investigate the mantle and, increasingly, the effectiveness of extraction techniques in hydrocarbon reservoirs.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"seismic tomography." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . 30 Apr. 2017 <>.

"seismic tomography." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . (April 30, 2017).

"seismic tomography." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from


seismology The study of elastic (seismic) waves and how they are produced. Global seismology is the study of seismic waves from earthquakes (and to a lesser extent nuclear explosions), to investigate the structure of and processes within the Earth. In exploration seismology, artificially generated seismic waves are used in the search for resources (e.g. hydrocarbons, etc.) and the study of the Earth's surface and near-surface. Planetary seismology is the use of seismic waves to investigate the structure of and processes within planets and natural satellites in the solar system.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"seismology." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . 30 Apr. 2017 <>.

"seismology." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . (April 30, 2017).

"seismology." A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from


seis·mol·o·gy / sīzˈmäləjē/ • n. the branch of science concerned with earthquakes and related phenomena. DERIVATIVES: seis·mo·log·i·cal / ˌsīzməˈläjikəl/ adj. seis·mo·log·i·cal·ly / ˌsīzməˈläjik(ə)lē/ adv. seis·mol·o·gist / -jist/ n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"seismology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 30 Apr. 2017 <>.

"seismology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (April 30, 2017).

"seismology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from


seismology Study of seismic waves, the shock waves produced by earthquakes. The velocity of seismic waves varies according to the material through which they pass. Primary (P) and secondary (S) waves are transmitted by the solid earth. Only P waves are transmitted through fluid zones. Seismic waves are detected and recorded by seismographs.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"seismology." World Encyclopedia. . 30 Apr. 2017 <>.

"seismology." World Encyclopedia. . (April 30, 2017).

"seismology." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from


seismology •haji • algae • Angie •argy-bargy, Panaji •edgy, sedgy, solfeggi, veggie, wedgie •cagey, stagy •mangy, rangy •Fiji, gee-gee, squeegee •Murrumbidgee, ridgy, squidgy •dingy, fringy, mingy, stingy, whingy •cabbagy • prodigy • effigy • villagey •porridgy • strategy • cottagey •dodgy, podgy, splodgy, stodgy •pedagogy •Georgie, orgy •ogee • Fuji •bhaji, budgie, pudgy, sludgy, smudgy •bulgy •bungee, grungy, gungy, scungy, spongy •allergy, analogy, genealogy, hypallage, metallurgy, mineralogy, tetralogy •elegy •antilogy, trilogy •aetiology (US etiology), amphibology, anthology, anthropology, apology, archaeology (US archeology), astrology, biology, campanology, cardiology, chronology, climatology, cosmology, craniology, criminology, dermatology, ecology, embryology, entomology, epidemiology, etymology, geology, gynaecology (US gynecology), haematology (US hematology), hagiology, horology, hydrology, iconology, ideology, immunology, iridology, kidology, meteorology, methodology, musicology, mythology, necrology, neurology, numerology, oncology, ontology, ophthalmology, ornithology, parasitology, pathology, pharmacology, phraseology, phrenology, physiology, psychology, radiology, reflexology, scatology, Scientology, seismology, semiology, sociology, symbology, tautology, technology, terminology, theology, topology, toxicology, urology, zoology • eulogy • energy • synergy • apogee • liturgy • lethargy •burgee, clergy •zymurgy • dramaturgy

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"seismology." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 30 Apr. 2017 <>.

"seismology." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (April 30, 2017).

"seismology." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from