During an earthquake, vibrations caused by the breakage of rock along a fault zone
radiate outward from the point of rupture. The instrument used to record and measure
these vibrations is called a seismograph.
Traditional seismographs consisted of a sensing element, called a seismometer, an
amplifier, and a hardcopy display unit often using photographic or heat-sensitive paper.
The visual record produced by a seismograph is called a seismogram. In modern
seismographs, the display is replaced or augmented with a digitizer and either local
digitial storage (eg., removable disks) or a telemetry system using radio, telephone or
the Internet to send the digital data stream to a central recording and analysis site.
EarthquakesCanada owns and operates the Canadian National Seismograph Network and
several special deployments, all of which are monitored from its data centers located in
Ottawa, Ontario and Sidney, British Columbia.

How Seismometers Work
To determine the motion of the earth during an earthquake, ground motion must be
measured against something that remains relatively fixed (i.e., not affected by the
shaking). In a seismometer, the fixed object consists of a mass suspended on springs
within a case. During an earthquake, the mass remains still while the case around it
moves with the ground shaking. Most modern seismometers work electromagnetically. A
large permanent magnet is used for the mass and the outside case contains numerous
windings of fine wire. Movements of the case relative to the magnet generate small
electric signals in the wire coil.
Earthquake waves decrease in strength as they travel through the earth. High-frequency
waves attenuate most severely; consequently, seismographs designed for monitoring
local earthquakes must respond to a different frequency of ground motion from those
used for recording distant earthquakes. Instruments sensitive to seismic waves that
vibrate several times per second, called short period seismographs, are used to record
local earthquakes, during which the waves reaching the seismograph are still very rapid
and close together. Long period seismographs respond to lower frequency waves and are
used to record distant events. Modern broadband seismographs perform both functions.
Some short period seismographs magnify ground motion several hundred thousand
times. Such sensitive high-gain instruments can detect ground far movements too small
to be felt by a human being. In the case of large earthquakes nearby, the ground motion
may exceed the recording capacity of seismographs. To record the signals from large
local earthquakes accurately, a third type of low-gain, Strong motion seismograph is
needed. Strong motion seismographs apply minimal magnification (less than 100x), and
are generally sensitive to ground acceleration. Traditional strong motion instruments
would not operate continuously, but only when triggered by strong ground movement,
and would record only until the ground motion returned to an imperceptible level. Modern

An earthquake's magnitude may be considered to vary as a function of the amount of energy released at the rupture point. However. To completely characterize the earth's movement. and some have the option for continuous telemetry. These are the slowest waves. Secondary. called surface waves. or P. which travel over the earth's surface. As S waves have a greater amplitude than P waves the two groups are easily distinguishable on the seismogram. On recordings of local earthquakes the surface waves are small and can seldom be distinguished from the S waves that preceded them. seismographs often employ three sensors. or S. By measuring the time interval between the arrivals of the P and S wave groups seismologists are able to calculate the distance between the seismograph and the origin of the earthquake. What is Shown on a Seismogram Seismograms are used to determine the location and magnitude of earthquakes. When P and S waves strike the surface of the earth they initiate a third kind of wave. 60-69: How seismographs work and interpretation of seismograms. two main types of vibratory waves move through the body of the earth from the point of fracture.  What is shown on a Seismogram?  What do seismic waves look like?  Interpreting seismograms Suggested Reading  "The Amateur Scientist". p. Prentice Hall. July 1957 and July 1979: Basic principles and how to build a simple seismograph. Consequently. recording in each of the north-south. When an earthquake occurs. John. Theprimary. Earthquakes and Earth Structure. since surface waves . Magnitude is then derived from the amplitude of the waves on the seismogram and the distance of the earthquake from the seismograph.  Hodgson. Scientific American. east-west and vertical (up and down) strong motion recorders are now replacing analog (photographic paper) recorders. waves travel most quickly and are the first to be registered by the seismograph. New Jersey. the motion must be measured in three perpendicular directions. 1964. waves travel more slowly.

Time unfolds from left to right in the diagram. they can be seen most clearly on the north-south trace ("N"). so because they're arriving from the west. which vibrate at a higher frequency and in the same direction as the path followed by the energy. (from side to side).html . a network of sensitive seismographs may be installed to locate even very minor First of all. Seismic Waves Here is an example of several main types of seismic waves. Our seismograph at Lillooet. which travel deep in the earth. at a rate of 60 seconds per tick mark at the bottom. there is the ordinary motion of the earth: almost a straight line. as opposed to the P and S waves. the Rayleigh waves arrive ("R" in the diagram. so at this distance they arrive about a minute later than the P waves. 2004.attenuate much more slowly than do P or S waves they are generally the largest waves to appear on long period seismograms of distant earthquakes.geo. beginning with the P waves ("Primary"). named after Lord Rayleigh who described them mathematically) which follow the surface of the earth. If an earthquake is recorded by three or more seismograph stations its precise location can be determined from the set of distances. but one can perhaps see small movements due to wind etc. B. 2. recorded these waves from a magnitude 6. and are therefore easier to see in the vertical ("V") and east-west ("E") traces. A description of seismic waves can be found at this site: http://www.C. and the three traces indicate vibration of the earth vertically ("V") and in north-south ("N") and east-west ("E") directions. In seismically active areas. which would indicate no movement. Then the energy from the earthquake arrives. at the left. These waves vibrate in a direction at right angles to the path along which the energy arrives.6 earthquake that occurred 600 km to the west on Nov.mtu. Later. The S waves ("Secondary") travel more slowly.

These instruments are sensitive to even the most .Interpreting seismograms Seismic data plots (seismograms) provide a visual record of earthquake activity. For example. will detect vibrations in the ground caused by high winds. as well as other vibrations in the earth caused by natural and man-made phenomena. seismographs located near shipping routes are able to detect the passage of freighters and cruise ships. Those near railway lines detect trains as they pass close by. especially along the West Coast. Seismographs in exposed areas.

and are able to detect signals from earthquakes occuring thousands of kilometres away. high gain seismograph that is oriented on the Z . You must subtract 8 hours to get Pacific Standard Time(PST). making it easy for the seismologist to see the difference in time between seismic events at several stations. For the seismic plots there is a 3 letter code added to the station suffix code that tells the seismologist information about the characteristics of the seismograph signal. PNT is the station code for Penticton.BHZ" indicates a broadband. Time Scale As shown below. of the signal received at a single station over the period of an hour. The traces all begin and end at the same time. ". or 7 hours for Pacific Daylight Time(PDT). The starting time for each plot is found in the lower left corner and time increases to the right. For example. or GMT). each data plot has a time scale associated with it. The time scale is in Universal Time (also known as Greenwich Mean Time. BIB is Bowen Island. Station Signals Each horizontal signal line (a "trace") represents the strength. BC. For example. BC.minute vibrations. You must also consider the date of the plot because 0600 on the 12th of June GMT is 2300 on the 11th of June PDT. or "amplitude". Each station is part of the Canadian National Seismograph Network and has a unique identifier code of from 3 to 5 letters.

and they travel in different ways and at different speeds. You will notice that the left. which is typical for an earthquake signal. By looking at the time differences between the arrival of the same signal at several stations. Other bursts may appear shortly after the first arrival. or "leading" edge of each "burst" is very square. the signal level begins to fall off as the earthquake energy dissipates gradually over time.axis (which measures the "up and down" motion of the earth). How do we know this is a small earthquake? Well. This indicates that the received signal became very strong in a very short time. and knowing how fast the signal is traveling through the earth's crust. These may be aftershocks or they may be other signals from the same earthquake that have travelled more slowly through the earth. For these plots. The ".EHZ" code indicates an extremely shortperiod. Z axis seismograph. high gain. called S and P waves. you will notice that the signal was not received on several stations that are farther away. . After a while. The energy released by the earthquake was not strong enough to travel longer distances. trigonometry can be applied to determine the exact location of the earthquake. Earthquake Signals The sample set of signals on the right are those of a small local earthquake. All of the signals on the displayed seismic plots have a Z axis orientation so that comparisons are easily made between seismograms. There are 2 primary signal types. the signal amplitude is so high that it reaches the maximum level and is "clipped" so that it looks like it has a flat top.

Their signals look very similar to earthquakes. and then gradually diminishes as the train moves farther away. Mining and construction activities regularly appear on stations nearby. receives signals from ships on their way to and from Alaska. You can also see that the signal reached some stations earlier than others. can be detected on a large number of stations. Canada provides seismic data to international organizations engaged in the monitoring of nuclear testing throughout the world. the CNSN station at Watts Point (WPB). then diminishes as it leaves the area. only those stations close by were able to detect it. Other Signal Sources Seismographs are so sensitive that they can detect very small vibrations in the earth. large explosions. north of Squamish. Similarly. For example. Here is a sample of a ship passing by BBB: Explosions are also detected by seismographs. BC. detects trains as they pass by. such as those from Nuclear Testing. that is near the rail lines that connect Vancouver with Edmonton. or CPA. a large cruise ship generates a lot of vibration in the earth. along the Pacific Coast. BC. However. near Blue River. Our station at Bella Bella (BBB). This information will be used to determine the earthquake location. You may also see train signals on station BLBC. . The signal from a train is noticeably different from that of an earthquake because it gradually builds up strength as the trains gets closer. Here is an example from Texada Island. The signal has a character that is similar to a train in that it builds gradually to the CPA. reaches its maximum as the train reaches its "closest point of approach". Most are very small signals that will be detected by only a few stations in the near vicinity. The signal is less steady though so it may have several peaks and valleys throughout.

Strong winds. each station has its own computer system that digitizes the data from its seismometer and transmits the digital data via one or more of satellite. on the North West side of Vancouver Island. The computer system at the station also calibrates itself whenever it is restarted. terrestrial microwave. UHF radio. Essentially. there will be a loss of signal or some form of noise introduced.Another source of noise in the seismic network is wind. or the Internet. which can can generate a strange but easily recognized transient burst: . If any of the components in the system should fail. telephone modem. Our site on the Brooks Peninsula. or become degraded by atmospheric or other disturbances. Here is a sample of the signal created by wind noise: System Noise Signals from the seismic stations make their way to EarthquakesCanada data centres via various electronic means. can create vibrations that can last for many hours. like those off the West Coast of BC. is on a mountaintop that is frequently hit by high winds.