How do we capture the motion of an earthquake?
Modern seismometers include three (3) elements to determine the simultaneous movement in three (3) directions: up-down, north-south, and east-west. Each direction of movement gives information about the earthquake. This animation shows both the movement of the three (3) basic waves (P, S, and surface) and the effect of the waves on a building. The three (3) seismograms produced by a modern seismograph station show that the P wave is more visible on the vertical component and the S wave amplitude is larger on the horizontal components.
We emphasize that seismic waves traveling away from an earthquake occur everywhere, not just at seismic stations.
CLOSED CAPTIONING: A .srt file is included with the download. Use an appropriate media player to utilize captioning.
Following an earthquake:
jAmaSeis is a free, java-based program that allows users to obtain and display seismic data in real-time from either a local instrument or from remote stations.
Seismic Waves is a browser-based tool to visualize the propagation of seismic waves from historic earthquakes through Earth’s interior and around its surface. Easy-to-use controls speed-up, slow-down, or reverse the wave propagation. By carefully examining these seismic wave fronts and their propagation, the Seismic Waves tool illustrates how earthquakes can provide evidence that allows us to infer Earth’s interior structure.
Seismic waves travel through the earth to a single seismic station. Scale and movement of the seismic station are greatly exaggerated to depict the relative motion recorded by the seismogram as P, S, and surface waves arrive.
A cow and a tree in this narrated cartoon for fun and to emphasize that seismic waves traveling away from an earthquake occur everywhere, not just at seismic stations A, B, C, and D. A person would feel a large earthquake only at station A near the epicenter. Stations B, C, D, and the cow are too far from the earthquake to feel the seismic waves though sensitive equipment records their arrival.
This companion to the animation "Four-Station Seismograph network" shows the arrival of seismic waves through select wave paths through the Earth (P and S waves) and over the surface of the Earth. The movement at distant stations occurs at a microscopic scale. While that doesn't result in noticeable movements of the buildings, the arrivals are recorded on sensitive seismometers.
A travel time curve is a graph of the time that it takes for seismic waves to travel from the epicenter of an earthquake to the hundreds of seismograph stations around the world. The arrival times of P, S, and surface waves are shown to be predictable. This animates an IRIS poster linked with the animation.
Seismic shadow zones have taught us much about the inside of the earth. This shows how P waves travel through solids and liquids, but S waves are stopped by the liquid outer core.
How can I get across the idea in a classroom activity using no props?
The human wave is used as an analogy for travel times of P and S seismic waves.
This draft video uses arms over shoulders as well as hand holding methods, so read the caveats about the best method (arms over shoulders).
To understand plate tectonic processes and hazards, and to better understand where future earthquakes are likely to occur, it is important to locate earthquakes as they occur. In this activity students use three-component seismic data from recent earthquakes to locate a global earthquake.