Seismic waves are waves that travel through the Earth, most often as the result of a tectonic earthquake, sometimes from an explosion. Seismic waves are also continually excited by the pounding of ocean waves and the wind. Seismic waves are studied by seismologists, and measured by a seismograph, which records the output of a seismometer, or geophone. For seismic studies of oil reservoirs, hydrophones may give additional information.
Rayleigh waves have been asserted to be visible during an earthquake in an open space like a parking lot where the cars move up and down with the waves, however, reports among seismologists suggest that the apparent motion may be due to distortion of the human eye during shaking. Anecdotally, placing people on "shake tables" causes the room to appear to ripple. In any case, waves of the reported amplitude, wavelength, and velocity of the "visible waves" have never been recorded instrumentally.
Seismic waves travel through water because gravity pulls the waves down causing friction of the waves.
In the case of local or nearby earthquakes, the difference in the arrival times of the P and S waves can be used to determine the distance to the event. In the case of earthquakes that have occurred at global distances, four or more geographically diverse observing stations (using a common clock) recording P-wave arrivals permits the computation of a unique time and location on the planet for the event. Typically, dozens or even hundreds of P-wave arrivals are used to calculate hypocenters. The misfit generated by a hypocenter calculation is known as "the residual". Residuals of 0.5 second or less are typical for distant events, residuals of 0.1-0.2 s typical for local events, meaning most reported P arrivals fit the computed hypocenter that well. Typically a location program will start by assuming the event occurred at a depth of about 33 km; then it minimizes the residual by adjusting depth. Most events occur at depths shallower than about 40 km, but some occur as deep as 700 km.
A quick way to determine the distance from a location to the origin of a seismic wave less than 200 km away is to take the difference in arrival time of the P wave and the S wave in seconds and multiply by 8 kilometers per second. Modern seismic arrays use more complicated earthquake location techniques.
At teleseismic distances, the first arriving P waves have necessarily travelled deep into the mantle, and perhaps have even refracted into the outer core of the planet, before travelling back up to the Earth's surface where the seismographic stations are located. The waves travel more quickly than if they had traveled in a straight line from the earthquake. This is due to the appreciably increased velocities within the planet, and is termed Huygens' Principle. Density in the planet increases with depth, which would slow the waves, but the modulus of the rock increases much more, so deeper means faster. Therefore, a longer route can take a shorter time.
The travel time must be calculated very accurately in order to compute a precise hypocenter. Since P waves move at many kilometers per second, being off on travel-time calculation by even a half second can mean an error of many kilometers in terms of distance. In practice, P arrivals from many stations are used and the errors cancel out, so the computed epicenter likely to be quite accurate, on the order of 10-50 km or so around the world. Dense arrays of nearby sensors such as those that exist in California can provide accuracy of roughly a kilometer, and much greater accuracy is possible when timing is measured directly by cross-correlation of seismogram waveforms.
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