Geology & Geophysics News

Seismic Wave Videos Combine Sight and Sound

Researchers convert seismic data into sounds and animations, providing scientists with a new way to view what happens to Earth during earthquakes.


New videos capture the surface and body waves from the extraordinarily powerful Tohoku earthquake that struck Japan in March 2011. The video below shows the surface and body waves as gold and violet light reverberating through Earth after the magnitude 9.0 quake.

2011 Tohoku Earthquake, Mag. 9.0. Body and Surface Waves from seismicsoundlab on Vimeo.


Researchers at the Seismic Sound Lab at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory used a computational model to generate the animations. The video’s sounds come from eight seismometers around the world that “heard” infrasound caused by the earthquake; video makers raised the soundwave frequencies into the range of human hearing.

Besides sharpening researchers’ perceptions of earthquakes themselves, the visualized seismic waves—modeled in a program originally developed by astrophysicist Matthew Turk to simulate the formation of stars—could also help reveal structures hidden deep within Earth, Ben Holtzman told Eos. He leads the Seismic Sound Lab, which is located in Palisades, N.Y.

“From each passage of seismic waves through the Earth, we get a little more information about how to build a seismic tomography model of Earth’s interior. It’s like a CAT scan of the brain,” Holtzman explained.

Pattern Recognition

Even untrained listeners and viewers are adept at interpreting data patterns from sound and light, Holtzman said. So converting data to sound we can hear and light we can see makes it easier for researchers to discover patterns, he explained.

By honing in on these visual and sound patterns, researchers can improve their understanding of the natural phenomena that created the patterns. Specifically for sound, “the human auditory system can perceive a great deal of subtlety in seismic data, including direction, earthquake source, and also the physical nature of the crust near the seismometer,” Holtzman said.

Translating data into sight and sound may also provide the general public with new perspectives, Holtzman added. To this end, starting 19 November, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City will open a special program at the Hayden Planetarium featuring this video and other similar presentations.

“We’re taking patterns that are on much longer timescales and spatial scales than we can directly perceive and making them perceivable,” said Holtzman. “It blows people’s minds.”

—Elizabeth Jacobsen, Production and Editorial Assistant

Citation: Jacobsen, E. (2016), Seismic wave videos combine sight and sound, Eos, 97, Published on 04 October 2016.
Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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