Seismic Deformation

When an earthquake fault ruptures, it causes two types of deformation: static; and dynamic. Static deformation is the permanent displacement of the ground due to the event. The earthquake cycle progresses from a fault that is not under stress, to a stressed fault as the plate tectonic motions driving the fault slowly proceed, to rupture during an earthquake and a newly-relaxed but deformed state.
Seismic rebound diagram
Typically, someone will build a straight reference line such as a road, railroad, pole line, or fence line across the fault while it is in the pre-rupture stressed state. After the earthquake, the formerly straight line is distorted into a shape having increasing displacement near the fault, a process known as elastic rebound.

Seismic Waves

The second type of deformation, dynamic motions, are essentially sound waves radiated from the earthquake as it ruptures. While most of the plate tectonic energy driving fault ruptures is taken up by static deformation, up to 10% may dissipate immediately in the form of seismic waves.

Seismic waves diagramThe mechanical properties of the rocks that seismic waves travel through quickly organize the waves into two types. Compressional waves, also known as primary or P waves, travel fastest, at speeds between 1.5 and 8 kilometers per second in the Earth's crust. Shear waves, also known as secondary or S waves, travel more slowly, usually at 60% to 70% of the speed of P waves.

P waves shake the ground in the direction they are propagating, while S waves shake perpendicularly or transverse to the direction of propagation.

Although wave speeds vary by a factor of ten or more in the Earth, the ratio between the average speeds of a P wave and of its following S wave is quite constant. This fact enables seismologists to simply time the delay between the arrival of the P wave and the arrival of the S wave to get a quick and reasonably accurate estimate of the distance of the earthquake from the observation station. Just multiply the S-minus-P (S-P) time, in seconds, by the factor 8 km/s to get the approximate distance in kilometers.

The dynamic, transient seismic waves from any substantial earthquake will propagate all around and entirely through the Earth. Given a sensitive enough detector, it is possible to record the seismic waves from even minor events occurring anywhere in the world at any other location on the globe. Nuclear test-ban treaties in effect today rely on our ability to detect a nuclear explosion anywhere equivalent to an earthquake as small as Richter Magnitude 3.5.

Seismographs and Seismograms

Seismograph diagram Sensitive seismographs are the principal tool of scientists who study earthquakes. Thousands of seismograph stations are in operation throughout the world, and instruments have been transported to the Moon, Mars, and Venus. Fundamentally, a seismograph is a simple pendulum. When the ground shakes, the base and frame of the instrument move with it, but intertia keeps the pendulum bob in place. It will then appear to move, relative to the shaking ground. As it moves it records the pendulum displacements as they change with time, tracing out a record called a seismogram.
One seismograph station, having three different pendulums sensitive to the north-south, east-west, and vertical motions of the ground, will record seismograms that allow scientists to estimate the distance, direction, Richter Magnitude, and type of faulting of the earthquake. Seismologists use networks of seismograph stations to determine the location of an earthquake, and better estimate its other parameters. It is often revealing to examine seismograms recorded at a range of distances from an earthquake:
Time-distance diagram
On this example it is obvious that seismic waves take more time to arrive at stations that are farther away. The average velocity of the wave is just the slope of the line connecting arrivals, or the change in distance divided by the change in time. Variations in such slopes reveal variations in the seismic velocities of rocks. Note the secondary S-wave arrivals that have larger amplitudes than the first P waves, and connect at a smaller slope.

Locating Earthquakes

The principle use of seismograph networks is to locate earthquakes. Although it is possible to infer a general location for an event from the records of a single station, it is most accurate to use three or more stations. Locating the source of any earthquake is important, of course, in assessing the damage that the event may have caused, and in relating the earthquake to its geologic setting.

Earthquake location diagramGiven a single seismic station, the seismogram records will yield a measurement of the S-P time, and thus the distance between the station and the event. Multiply the seconds of S-P time by 8 km/s for the kilometers of distance. Drawing a circle on a map around the station's location, with a radius equal to the distance, shows all possible locations for the event. With the S-P time from a second station, the circle around that station will narrow the possible locations down to two points. It is only with a third station's S-P time that you can draw a third circle that should identify which of the two previous possible points is the real one:

This example uses stations in Boston, Edinburgh, and Manaus. With the distances shown, all three circles can intersect only at a single point on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge spreading center.