How Do I Read a Seismogram?

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



Figure 1 - A typical seismogram.


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



Figure 2 - A cross-section of the earth, with earthquake wave paths defined and their shadow-zones highlighted.

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

The surface waves (Love and Rayleigh waves) are the other, often larger, waves marked on the seismogram. They have a lower frequency, which means that waves (the lines; the ups-and-downs) are more spread out. Surface waves travel a little slower than S waves (which, in turn, are slower than P waves) so they tend to arrive at the seismograph just after the S waves. For shallow earthquakes (earthquakes with a focus near the surface of the earth), the surface waves may be the largest waves recorded by the seismograph. Often they are the only waves recorded a long distance from medium-sized earthquakes.


Figure 2 from Walker, 1982. All other content is 2007 Michigan Technological University. Permission granted for reproduction for non-commercial uses.