Thursday, June 23, 2011


Seismometers are instruments that measure motions of the ground, including those of seismic waves generated by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other seismic sources. Records of seismic waves allow seismologists to map the interior of the Earth, and locate and measure the size of these different sources.

The word derives from the Greek σεισμός, seismós, a shaking or quake, from the verb σείω, seíō, to shake; and μέτρον, métron, measure.

Seismograph is another Greek term from seismós and γράφω, gráphō, to draw. It is often used to mean seismometer, though it is more applicable to the older instruments in which the measuring and recording of ground motion were combined than to modern systems, in which these functions are separated.

Both types provide a continuous record of ground motion; this distinguishes them from seismoscopes, which merely indicate that motion has occurred, perhaps with some simple measure of how large it was.

Basic Principle

Inertial seismometers have levers in them that keep rhythmic motion

  • A weight, usually called the internal mass, that can move relative to the instrument frame, but is attached to it by a system (such as a spring) that will hold it fixed relative to the frame if there is no motion, and also damp out any motions once the motion of the frame stops.
  • A means of recording the motion of the mass relative to the frame, or the force needed to keep it from moving.

Any motion of the ground moves the frame. The mass tends not to move because of its inertia, and by measuring the motion between the frame and the mass, the motion of the ground can be determined, even though the mass does move.

Early seismometers used optical levers or mechanical linkages to amplify the small motions involved, recording on soot-covered paper or photographic paper.

Modern instruments use electronics. In some systems, the mass is held nearly motionless relative to the frame by an electronic negative feedback loop. The motion of the mass relative to the frame is measured, and the feedback loop applies a magnetic or electrostatic force to keep the mass nearly motionless. The voltage needed to produce this force is the output of the seismometer, which is recorded digitally. In other systems the weight is allowed to move, and its motion produces a voltage in a coil attached to the mass and moving through the magnetic field of a magnet attached to the frame. This design is often used in the geophones used in seismic surveys for oil and gas.

Professional seismic observatories usually have instruments measuring three axes: north-south, east-west, and the vertical. If only one axis can be measured, this is usually the vertical because it is less noisy and gives better records of some seismic waves.

The foundation of a seismic station is critical. A professional station is sometimes mounted on bedrock. The best mountings may be in deep boreholes, which avoid thermal effects, ground noise and tilting from weather and tides. Other instruments are often mounted in insulated enclosures on small buried piers of unreinforced concrete. Reinforcing rods and aggregates would distort the pier as the temperature changes. A site is always surveyed for ground noise with a temporary installation before pouring the pier and laying conduit.

Zhang Heng's seismoscope

In AD 132, Zhang Heng of China's Han dynasty invented the first seismoscope (by the definition above), which was called Houfeng Didong Yi(literally, "instrument for measuring the seasonal winds and the movements of the Earth"). The description we have, from the History of the Later Han Dynasty, says that it was a large bronze vessel, about 2 meters in diameter; at eight points around the top were dragon's heads holding bronze balls. When there was an earthquake, one of the mouths would open and drop its ball into a bronze toad at the base, making a sound and supposedly showing the direction of the earthquake. On at least one occasion, probably at the time of a large earthquake in Gansuin AD 143, the seismoscope indicated an earthquake even though one was not felt. The available text says that inside the vessel was a central column that could move along eight tracks; this is thought to refer to a pendulum, though it is not known exactly how this was linked to a mechanism that would open only one dragon's mouth. The first ever earthquake recorded by this seismograph was supposedly somewhere in the east. Days later, a rider from the east reported this earthquake.

Modern Instruments

Modern instruments use electronic sensors, amplifiers, and recording devices. Most are broadband covering a wide range of frequencies. Some seismometers can measure motions with frequencies from 500 Hz to 0.00118 Hz (1/500 = 0.002 seconds per cycle, to 1/0.00118 = 850 seconds per cycle). The mechanical suspension for horizontal instruments remains the garden-gate described above. Vertical instruments use some kind of constant-force suspension, such as the LaCoste suspension. The LaCoste suspension uses a zero-length spring to provide a long period (high sensitivity). Some modern instruments use a "triaxial" design, in which three identical motion sensors are set at the same angle to the vertical but 120 degrees apart on the horizontal. Vertical and horizontal motions can be computed from the outputs of the three sensors.

Seismometers unavoidably introduce some distortion into the signals they measure, but professionally-designed systems have carefully characterized frequency transforms.

Modern sensitivities come in three broad ranges: geophones, 50 to 750 V/m; local geologic seismographs, about 1,500 V/m; and teleseismographs, used for world survey, about 20,000 V/m. Instruments come in three main varieties: short period, long period and broadband. The short and long period measure velocity and are very sensitive, however they 'clip' the signal or go off-scale for ground motion that is strong enough to be felt by people. A 24-bit analog-to-digital conversion channel is commonplace. Practical devices are linear to roughly one part per million.

Delivered seismometers come with two styles of output: analog and digital. Analog seismographs require analog recording equipment, possibly including an analog-to-digital converter. The output of a digital seismographs can be simply input to a computer. They present the data in standard digital forms (often "SE2" over ethernet).

Strong-motion seismometers

Another type of seismometer is a digital strong-motion seismometer, or accelerograph. The data from such an instrument is essential to understand how an earthquake affects manmade structures.

A strong-motion seismometer measures acceleration. This can be mathematically integrated later to give velocity and position. Strong-motion seismometers are not as sensitive to ground motions as teleseismic instruments but they stay on scale during the strongest seismic shaking.

Modern recording

Today, the most common recorder is a computer with an analog-to-digital converter, a disk drive and an internet connection; for amateurs, a PC with a sound card and associated software is adequate. Most systems record continuously, but some record only when a signal is detected, as shown by a short-term increase in the variation of the signal, compared to its long-term average (which can vary slowly because of changes in seismic noise).

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