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Locating an Earthquake Using a Global Seismic Network

Time Required Long (2-4 weeks)
Prerequisites This project uses the Global Earthquake Explorer program to download and analyze data from a global seismic network. In order to do this project you will need to be comfortable installing and working with a new program on your computer. This project requires a computer with high speed Internet access
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety No issues


When an earthquake happens, how are scientists able to determine the original location of the quake? In this project, you'll use archived data from a global network of seismometers to find out for yourself. You will make your own seismograms using the Global Earthquake Explorer program, and then use the seismograms to determine the location of earthquake epicenters.


The goal of this project is to locate the epicenters of worldwide earthquakes using archived seismometer data from a global network.


Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Locating an Earthquake Using a Global Seismic Network" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 4 Oct. 2014. Web. 25 Oct. 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Geo_p021.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, October 4). Locating an Earthquake Using a Global Seismic Network. Retrieved October 25, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Geo_p021.shtml

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Last edit date: 2014-10-04


A fundamental principle of geology is that the features of the Earth are not fixed. Instead, they change over time. The time scale of most geologic changes is creepingly slow in terms of a human lifetime. Uplift of mountain ranges may occur at 1-10 mm/year, not even a hill in a human lifetime, but when continued over millions of years it results in some spectacular peaks!

An earthquake is an example of a major geologic event that occurs suddenly. If you look at a map of historic earthquakes (USGS, 2007), you'll notice that most quakes occur near the boundaries between tectonic plates. At boundaries where the plates oppose one another, tremendous strains can build up between between the plates. The strains are suddenly released when one plate slips against the other. The energy from this sudden movement travels through the earth as shock waves.

Figure 1 is from a US Geological Survey publication, "The Interior of the Earth" (Robertson, date unknown). It shows the layers of the Earth, through which the shock waves travel.

the layers of the earth

Figure 1. The layers of the Earth (Robertson, date unknown).

Table 1, from the same publication, gives a brief description of each of the earth's layers (Robertson, date unknown).

Table 1. Data on the Earth's Interior
Layer Thickness
Density (g/cm3) Types of Rock Found
Top Bottom
Crust 30 2.2 2.9 Silicic rocks. Andesite, basalt at base.
Upper mantle 720 3.4 4.4 Peridotite, eclogite, olivine, spinel, garnet, pyroxene. Perovskite, oxides at bottom.
Lower mantle 2,171 4.4 5.6 Magnesium and silicon oxides.
Outer core 2,259 9.9 12.2 Iron+oxygen, sulfur, nickel alloy.
Inner core 1,221 12.8 13.1 Iron+oxygen, sulfur, nickel alloy.

The shock waves spreading out from an earthquake are called seismic waves (from the Greek word for earthquake). There are two general types of seismic waves: body waves and surface waves.

  1. Body waves travel through the Earth's interior.
  2. Surface waves, which are analogous to water waves, travel just beneath the Earth's surface.

There are two types of body waves, P waves and S waves. P waves (also called primary waves) are compression waves. Like sound waves, they consist of compressions and rarefactions of the material through which they travel. The compressions and rarefactions are in the same direction that the wave is traveling. S waves (also called secondary waves) are transverse (or shear) waves, meaning that the ground moves perpendicularly to the direction of travel. S waves have much higher amplitude than P waves, but travel more slowly. They carry more destructive force than P waves. Another difference between P waves and S waves is that S waves cannot travel through the Earth's liquid core, while P waves can. S waves can therefore be detected by seismometers near the epicenter of an earthquake, but not by more distant seismometers. P waves can be detected by both local and distant seismometers.

Figure 2 (Robertson, date unknown) is a cross-section of the Earth, showing how P waves and S waves travel through the various layers. Because of the varying density of the layers, the waves are refracted as they pass through the different layers. This is analogous to the refraction of light waves when they pass from air to water, for example.

seismic wave paths through the Earth

Figure 2. "Cross section of the whole Earth, showing the complexity of paths of earthquake waves. The paths curve because the different rock types found at different depths change the speed at which the waves travel. Solid lines marked P are compressional waves; dashed lines marked S are shear waves. S waves do not travel through the core but may be converted to compressional waves (marked K) on entering the core (PKP, SKS). Waves may be reflected at the surface (PP, PPP, SS)." (Robertson, date unknown).

Figure 3 is a seismometer trace that shows P waves and S waves from an example earthquake. Since P waves travel faster than S waves, they always arrive first. The S wave is marked by an abrupt increase in the amplitude of the disturbance on the trace. In this project you will use a webpage interface to make similar seismograms in order to locate earthquake epicenters.

example seismogram from the Global Earthquake Explorer program

Figure 3. Example seismogram created with the Global Earthquake Explorer program (GEE, 2006).

The difference in travel time between the first P wave and the first S wave can be used to measure the distance from the seismometer recording station to the epicenter of a local earthquake. In this project you will use this method to determine the location of earthquakes using archived data accessed and displayed with the Global Earthquake Explorer program.

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:

  • Plate tectonics
  • Earthquake
  • Temblor
  • Epicenter
  • Seismometer
  • Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)
  • Seismic waves:
    • Body waves, including P-waves and S-waves (also called P and S phases)
    • Surface waves
  • Earth layers:
    • Crust
    • Upper mantle
    • Lower mantle
    • Outer core
    • Inner core
  • Travel time


  • Can you explain the differences between P-waves and S-waves?
  • What causes earthquakes?
  • Where do earthquakes occur most frequently?


To help you get started on your background research, here are some useful websites on the passage of seismic waves through Earth's interior and a good general introduction to waves:

This science project uses Global Earthquake Explorer (GEE) software, a Java-based program with versions for all three major flavors of personal computer (Windows, Mac, Linux). You can find download the program and user manual from:

  • Global Earthquake Explorer (GEE). (n.d.). The Global Earthquake Explorer. Department of Geological Sciences, University of South Carolina, and the IRIS Consortium. Retrieved March 8, 2013, from http://www.seis.sc.edu/gee/about.html

Travel-time data for P-waves and S-waves is from this USGS webpage:

Here is one source of outline maps that you could print and use for this science project:

To find earthquake information (date, time, location, magnitude) to do this science project, see this webpage:

  • USGS. (2013, March 6). Historic Worldwide Earthquakes. U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved March 8, 2013, from Historic Worldwide Earthquakes

Materials and Equipment

To do this experiment you will need the following materials and equipment:

  • Computer with high-speed Internet access and printer
  • Pencil
  • Compass
  • Printed maps with latitude and longitude for determining quake epicenter location

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Experimental Procedure

Downloading and Installing the Software

  1. This project uses Global Earthquake Explorer (GEE) software, a Java-based program with versions for all three major flavors of personal computer (Windows, Mac, Linux). You can find download the program and user manual from:
    GEE, 2006. "The Global Earthquake Explorer," Department of Geological Sciences, University of South Carolina and the IRIS Consortium [accessed May 16, 2007] http://www.seis.sc.edu/gee/about.html.
    1. Click the appropriate link for your type of computer, and follow the instructions to download the program and install it on your computer.
    2. Note that the program requires high-speed Internet access in order to work properly.
    3. The program requires Java, but the installer should automatically take care of this for you if the Java Runtime Environment is not already installed on your computer.
    4. If you have problems with the installation, you can find complete documentation for the program (in pdf format, requires Adobe Acrobat) at: http://www.seis.sc.edu/gee/docu.html.
  2. Before running the program, take some time to read through the user's manual that comes with it so that you are familiar with how the program works.

Getting Earthquake Data

  1. Start the Global Earthquake Explorer program on your computer.
  2. On the startup screen, click on the option, "Explore Recent Earthquakes."

    Global Earthquake Explorer startup screen

    Global Earthquake Explorer startup screen (GEE, 2006).

  3. You will see a world map displaying earthquake activity from the past 7 days.
    1. Noteworthy earthquakes are displayed as circles.
    2. The map is automatically centered on the largest earthquake in the time period.
    3. The size of the circles is related to the magnitude of each quake.
    4. The color of the circles is related to the depth of each quake.
    5. When you 'mouse over' the circle for each earthquake, the status line at the bottom of the map displays information about the quake.
    6. The blue triangles show seismic stations with available data. (Be patient, it takes awhile for the program to check on what data is available.)

    Global Earthquake Explorer World Map tab

    Global Earthquake Explorer World Map tab screen shot (GEE, 2006).

  4. The controls at the top of the map are fairly self-explanatory.

    Global Earthquake Explorer World Map tab controls

    The controls allow you to:
    1. Select earthquakes and seismometer stations
    2. Zoom in and out on the map
    3. Pan (i.e., click-and-drag) the map
    4. Restore the map to normal size
    5. De-select all seismometer stations
    6. Get help
    7. Load seismometer data
    For more details, see the Help menu in the program.
  5. By default, the World Map shows noteworthy earthquakes from the previous week. You can select data from previous time periods by choosing Edit/Earthquakes/Noteworthy Earthquakes from the program menu.
    1. You'll see a dialog box like the one shown which you can use for selecting archived earthquake data.

      Noteworthy Earthquakes dialog box screen shot

    2. You can use the USGS Historic Worldwide Earthquakes webpage to find the dates, times and locations of earthquakes of interest.
  6. Here are the steps to get seismometer data from a particular earthquake:
    1. Select an earthquake of interest by clicking on its colored circle. The map will re-center (east-west) on the selected earthquake, and the program will check to see which seismometer stations have data available for the selected quake. (Be patient, it takes awhile for the program to check on what data is available.)
    2. Click to select at least three blue seismometer stations close to the earthquake. Selected stations are outlined in white as in the illustration.

      Global Earthquake Explorer World Map detail with three seismometer stations selected

    3. Click on the "Load Selected Stations" control button to load seismometer data from the selected stations. The program will retrieve the data and switch to the Seismogram Display tab, as shown in the illustration below.

      example of the seismogram display tab with three seismograms displayed

Analyzing the Seismogram Data

  1. Analyze the seismogram.
    1. Identify the arrival of the P-wave. The P-wave always arrives first. Use the cursor in the seismogram display tab to measure the arrival time of the P-wave. Adjust the cursor until it is on top of the P-wave, then read the arrival time from the display at the lower right (highlighted in illustration).
      example seismogram from the Global Earthquake Explorer program
    2. Identify the arrival of the S-wave. Again, use the cursor in the seismogram display tab to measure the arrival time of the S-wave. Adjust the cursor until it is on top of the S-wave, then read the arrival time from the display at the lower right (highlighted in illustration). Remember that the S-wave may be difficult to identify, because the trace is already disturbed by the P-wave and other waves associated with it.
      example seismogram from the Global Earthquake Explorer program
    3. Figure out the time of arrival of each wave and enter it in a data table in your lab notebook like:

      Station P-wave arrival time
      (Tp, hh:mm:ss)
      S-wave arrival time
      (Ts, hh:mm:ss)
      Honiara, Solomon Islands P 23:13:25.165 (S) 23:14:59.155 93.99 7.5
    4. If you are uncertain about your identification of the S-wave, put parentheses around it when you enter it in the table, like this: (S) 23:14:59.155. That way, if you have to repeat some measurements later, you'll be able to identify which ones to re-examine.
    5. Calculate the difference in arrival times of the first S-wave and the first P-wave. (If you have not identified an S-wave arrival, do not calculate this time.) Remember that there are 60 seconds in one minute and 60 minutes in one hour. Enter the information in the data table.
  2. Use the Travel Time Graph to find the distance from the station to the event.
    1. For a printable copy, click here (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
    2. Find the S−P travel time on the y-axis.
    3. Read straight across until you intersect the travel time curve.
    4. Read the straight down to the x-axis.
    5. Calculate the distance (in degrees) from the x-axis.
    6. Enter the distance in your data table.
    7. The figure illustrates the whole process for determining the distance to station Honiara, Solomon Islands for the sample earthquake.

      how to use the travel time curve

  3. Draw a circle on the station map to indicate the possible locations for the earthquake epicenter.
    1. Use the map scale to set your compass to the correct distance in degrees (as determined from the travel time graph).
    2. With your compass set correctly, place the point of the compass on the station, and draw a circle around it. You can obtain the latitude and longitude of each station by selecting Tools/Event and Station Info from the program menu. The origin of the earthquake should lie on (or near) this circle.
  4. Add more stations to pinpoint the epicenter location. Repeat steps 1-3 for additional stations until you are confident about the location of the epicenter.
    1. When making additional seismograms, examine the data you have already plotted on the station map and think carefully about which station will provide the most valuable additional information.
    2. Remember that you may have to go back and reassess your determination of the S-wave arrival time on some seismograms.
    3. When you are confident of your results, mark your predicted epicenter location on the map.
  5. Repeat the process for several different earthquakes. When you are finished, compare the plotted epicenter location to the actual location of the epicenter (which can be obtained by selecting Tools/Event and Station Info from the program menu).

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