Atlantic Ocean

Is it an earthquake, a nuclear test or a hurricane? How seismometers help us understand the world we live in

Is it an earthquake, a nuclear test or a hurricane? How seismometers help us understand the world we live in

Although traditionally used to study earthquakes, like today’s M 8.1 in Mexico,  seismometers have now become so sophisticated they are able to detect the slightest ground movements; whether they come from deep within the bowels of the planet or are triggered by events at the surface. But how, exactly, do earthquake scientists decipher the signals picked up by seismometers across the world? And more importantly, how do they know whether they are caused by an earthquake, nuclear test or a hurricane?  

To find out we asked Neil Wilkins (a PhD student at the University of Bristol) and Stephen Hicks (a seismologist at the University of Southampton) to share some insights with our readers.

Seismometers are highly sensitive and they are able to detect a magnitude 5 earthquake occurring on the other side of the planet. Also, most seismic monitoring stations have sensors located within a couple of meters of the ground surface, so they can be fairly susceptible to vibrations at the surface. Seismologists can “spy” on any noise source, from cows moving in a nearby field to passing trucks and trains.

A nuclear test

On Sunday the 3rd of September, North Korea issued a statement announcing it had successfully tested an underground hydrogen bomb. The blast was confirmed by seismometers across the globe. The U.S.  Geological Survey registered a 6.3 magnitude tremor, located at the Punggye-ri underground test site, in the northwest of the country. South Korea’s Meteorological Administration’s earthquake and volcano center also detected what is thought to be North Korea’s strongest test to date.

However they occur, explosions produce ground vibrations capable of being detected by seismic sensors. Mining and quarry blasts appear frequently at nearby seismic monitoring stations. In the case of nuclear explosions, the vibrations can be so large that the seismic waves they produce can be picked up all over the world, as in the case of this latest test.

It was realised quite early in the development of nuclear weapons that seismology could be used to detect such tests. In fact, the need to have reliable seismic data for monitoring underground nuclear explosions led in part to the development of the Worldwide Standardized Seismograph Network in the 1960s, the first of its kind.

Today, more than 150 seismic stations are operating as part of the International Monitoring System (IMS) to detect nuclear tests in breach of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which opened for signatures in 1996. The IMS also incorporates other technologies, including infrasound, hydroacoustics and radionuclide monitoring.

The key to determining whether a seismic signal is from an explosion or an earthquake lies in the nature of the waves that are present. There are three kinds of seismic wave seismologists can detect. The fastest, called Primary (P) waves, cause ground vibrations in the same direction that they travel, similar to sound waves in the air. Secondary (S) waves cause shaking in a perpendicular direction. Both P and S waves travel deep through the Earth and are known collectively as body waves. In contrast, the third type of seismic waves are known as surface waves, because they are trapped close to the surface of the Earth. In an earthquake, it is normally surface waves that cause the most ground shaking.

In an explosion, most of the seismic energy is released outwards as the explosive material rapidly expands. This means that the largest signal in the seismogram comes as P waves. Explosions therefore have a distinctive shape in the seismic data when compared with an earthquake, where we expect S and surface waves to have higher amplitude.

Forensic seismologists can therefore make measurements of the seismic data to determine whether there was an explosion. An extra indication that a nuclear test occurred can also be revealed by measuring the depth of the source of the waves, as it would not be possible to place a nuclear device deeper than around 10 km below the surface.

Yet while seismic data can tell us that there has been an explosion, there is nothing that can directly identify that explosion as being nuclear. Instead, the IMS relies on the detection of radioactive gases that can leak from the test site for final confirmation of what kind of bomb was used.

The figure shows (at the bottom) the seismic recording of the latest test in North Korea made at NORSAR’s station in Hedmark, Norway. The five upper traces show recordings at the same station for the five preceding tests, conducted by North Korea in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016 (two explosions in 2016). The 2017 test, is as can be seen from this figure, clearly the strongest so far. Credit: NORSAR.

When North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2013, radioactive xenon was detected 55 days later, but this is not always possible. Any detection of such gases depends on whether or not a leak occurs in the first place, and how the gases are transported in the atmosphere.

Additionally, the seismic data cannot indicate the size of the nuclear device or whether it could be attached to a ballistic missile, as the North Korean government claims.

What seismology can give us is an idea of the size of the explosion by measuring the seismic magnitude. This is not straightforward, and depends on knowledge of exactly how deep the bomb was buried and the nature of the rock lying over the test site. However, by comparing the magnitude of this latest test with those from the previous five tests conducted in North Korea, we can see that this is a much larger explosion.

The Norwegian seismic observatory NORSAR has estimated a blast equivalent to 120 kilotons of TNT, six times larger than the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, and consistent with the expected yield range of a hydrogen bomb.


Nuclear tests are not the only hazard keeping our minds busy in the past few weeks. In the Atlantic, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Katia have wreaked havoc in the southern U.S.A, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Hurricanes in the Atlantic can occur at any time between June and November. According to hurricane experts, we are at the peak of the season. It is not uncommon for storms to form in rapid succession between August, September and October.

The National Hurricane Centre (NHC) is the de facto regional authority for producing hurricane forecasts and issuing alerts in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific. For their forecasts, meteorologists use a combination of on the ground weather sensors (e.g. wind, pressure, Doppler radar) and satellite data.

As hurricane Irma tore its way across the Atlantic, gaining strength and approaching the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, local seismometers detected its signature, sending the global press into a frenzy. It may come as a slight surprise to some people that storms and hurricanes also show on seismometers.

However, a seismometer detecting an approaching hurricane is not actually that astonishing. There is no evidence to suggest that hurricanes directly cause earthquakes, so what signals can we detect from a hurricane? Rather than “signals”, seismologists tend to refer to this kind of seismic energy as “noise” as it thwarts our ability to see what we’re normally looking out for – earthquakes.

The seismic noise from a storm doesn’t look like distinct “pings” that we would see with an earthquake. What we see are fairly low-pitched “hums” that gradually get louder in the days and hours preceding the arrival of a storm. As the storm gets closer to the sensor, these hums turn into slightly higher-pitched “rustling”. This seismic energy then wanes as the hurricane drifts away. We saw this effect clearly for Hurricane Irma with recordings from a seismometer on the island of Guadeloupe.

What causes these hums and rustles? If you look at the frequency content of seismic data from any monitoring station around the globe, noise levels light up at frequencies of ~0.2 Hz (5 s period). We call these hums “microseism”. Microseism is caused by persistent seismic waves unrelated to earthquakes, and it occurs over huge areas of the planet.  One of the strongest sources of microseism is caused by ocean waves and swell. During a hurricane, swell increases and ocean waves become more energetic, eventually crashing into coastlines, transferring seismic energy into the ground. This effect is more obvious on islands as they are surrounded by water.

As the hurricane gets closer to the island, wind speeds dramatically increase and may dwarf the noise level of the longer period microseism. Wind rattles trees, telegraph poles, and the surface itself, transferring seismic energy into the ground and moving the sensitive mass inside the seismometer. This effect causes higher-pitched “rustles” as the centre of the storm approaches. Gusts of wind can also generate pressure changes inside the seismometer installation and within the seismometer itself, generating longer period fluctuations.

During Hurricane Irma, a seismic monitoring station located in the Dutch territory of St. Maarten clearly recorded the approach of the storm, leading to an intense crescendo as the eyewall crossed the area. As the centre of the eye passed over, the seismometer seems to have recorded a slightly lower noise level. This observation could be due to the calmer conditions and lower pressure within the eye. The station went down shortly after, probably from a power outage or loss in telemetry which provides the data in real-time.

Seismometers measuring storms is not a new observation. Recently, Hurricane Harvey shook up seismometers located in southern Texas. Even in the UK, the approach of winter storms across the Atlantic causes much higher levels of microseism.

It would be difficult to use seismometer recordings to help forecast a hurricane – the recordings really depend on how close the sensor is to the coast and how exposed the site is to wind. In the event of outside surface wind and pressure sensors being damaged by the storm, protected seismometers below the ground could possibly prove useful in delineating the rough location of the hurricane eye, assuming they maintain power and keep sending real-time data.

At least several seismic monitoring stations in the northern Antilles region were put out of action by the effects of the Hurricane. Given the total devastation on some islands, it is likely that it will take at least several months to bring these stations back online. The Lesser Antilles are a very tectonically active and complex part of Earth; bringing these sensors back into operation will be crucial to earthquake and volcano hazard monitoring in the region.

By Neil Wilkins (PhD student at the University of Bristol) and Steven Hicks (a seismologist at the University of Southampton)

References and further reading

GeoSciences Column: Can seismic signals help understand landslides and rockfalls?

NORSAR Press Release: Large nuclear test in North Korea on 3 September 2017

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Organization Press Release: CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo on the unusual seismic event detected in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

First Harvey, Then Irma and Jose. Why? It’s the Season (The New York Times)

NOAA  National Hurricane Center

IRIS education and outreach series: How does a seismometer work?

GeoTalk: The life and death of an ocean – is the Atlantic Ocean on its way to closing?

GeoTalk: The life and death of an ocean – is the Atlantic Ocean on its way to closing?

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. Following the EGU General Assembly, we spoke to João Duarte, the winner of a 2017 Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists.  João is a pioneer in his field. He has innovatively combined tectonic, marine geology and analogue modelling techniques to further our understanding of subduction initiation and wrench tectonics. Not only that, he is a keen science communicator who believes in fostering the next generation of Earth scientists.

Thank you for talking to us today! Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I am a geologist by training. I gained my undergraduate degree from the University of Lisbon and I stayed there to research geodynamics as part of my PhD which I finished in 2012. As I was coming to the end of writing up my thesis I moved to Monash University, in 2011, to start a postdoc.

Yes! I worked on my PhD and a postdoc at the same time, but I was only really finishing up. My thesis was almost ready. When I moved to Australia the defence was outstanding, but otherwise I was almost done.

My PhD thesis focused on the reactivation of the SW Iberian margin. It was the very first time I came across the problem of subduction initiation and that has become a big focus of my career to date.

My postdoc came to an end in 2015 and I moved back to Portugal and took up a position at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon where I’ve started building my own research group [more on that later on in the interview].

I’ve always been passionate about science. It started when I was a kid, I’ve always been interested in popular science. My favourite writers are Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan.

During EGU 2017, you received an Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Young Scientists for your work on subduction initiation and wrench tectonics. What brought you to study this particular field?

On the morning of the 1st of November 1755, All Saints Day, when many Portuguese citizens found themselves at church attending mass, one of the most powerful earthquakes ever document struck off the coast of Portugal, close to Lisbon.

It was gigantic, with an estimated magnitude (Mw) 8.5 or 9. It triggered three tsunami waves which travelled up the Tagus River, flooding Lisbon harbour and the downtown area. The waves reached the United Kingdom and spread across the Atlantic towards North America too.

The combined death toll as a result of the ground shaking, tsunamis and associated fires may have exceeded 100,000 people.

The event happened during the Enlightenment period, so many philosophers and visionaries rushed to try and understand the earthquake. Their information gathering efforts are really the beginning of modern seismology.

But the 1755 event wasn’t an isolated one. There was another powerful earthquake off the coast of Portugal 200 years later, in 1969. It registered a magnitude (Mw) of 7.8.

This earthquake coincided with the development of the theory of plate tectonics. While Wegener proposed the idea of continental drift in 1912, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that the theory really took hold.

People knew by then that the margins of the plates along the Pacific were active – the area is famous for its powerful earthquakes, explosive volcanoes and high mountain ranges. Both the 2004 Indian Ocean and 2011 Thoku (Japan) earthquakes and tsunamis were triggered at active margins.

But the margins of the Atlantic are passive [where the plates are not actively colliding with or sinking below one another, so tectonic activity – such as earthquakes and volcanoes – is minimal]. So, it was really strange that we could have such high magnitude quakes around Portugal.

A large European project was put together to produce a map of the SW Iberian margin and the Holy Grail would be to locate the source of the 1755 quake. The core of my PhD was to compile all the ocean floor and sub-seafloor data and produce a new map of the main tectonic structures of the margin.

Tectonic map of the SW Iberia margin. In grey the deformation front of the GibraltarArc, in white the strike-slip fault associated with the Azores-Gibraltar fracture zone, and in yellow the new set of thrust faults that mark the reactivation of the margin (Duarte et al., 2013, Geology)

What did the new map reveal?

Already in the 70s and later in the late 90s, researchers started to wonder if this margin could be in a transition between passive to active: could an old passive margin be reactivated? If so, could this mean a new subduction zone is starting somewhere offshore Portugal?

The processes which lead a passive margin to become active were unclear and controversial. All the places where subduction is starting are linked to locations where plates are known to be converging already.

The occurrence of the high magnitude earthquakes, along with the fact that there is structural evidence (folding, faulting and independent tectonic blocks) of a subduction zone in the western Mediterranean (the Gibraltar Arc) suggested that it was possible that a new subduction system was forming in the SW Iberian margin.

The new ocean floor and seismic data revealed three active tectonic systems, which were included in the map. The map shows the margin is being reactivated and allowed identifying the mechanism by which it could happen: ‘Subduction invasion’ or ‘subduction infection’ (a term first introduced by Mueller and Phillips, 1991).

I’d like to stress though, that the map and its findings are the culmination of many years of work and ideas, by many people. My work simply connected all the dots to try to build a bigger picture.

So, what does ‘subduction infection and invasion’ involve?

Subduction zones, probably, don’t start spontaneously, but rather they are induced from locations where another subduction system (or an external force, such as  a collisional belt) already exists.

For example, if a narrow bridge of land connects an ocean (as is often the case) where subduction is active to one where the margins are passive. The active subduction zones from one can invade the passive margins and activate them. You see this in the other side of the Atlantic (where subduction zones have migrated from the Pacific), in the Scotia and the Lesser Antilles arcs.

We also know this has happened in past. But Iberia might be the only place where it is happening currently. And that is fascinating!

Earlier on you said that the ‘Holy Grail’ moment of the map would be if you could find the source of the 1755 earthquake. Did you?

No. Not entirely. The source of the earthquake is probably a complex fault, where multiple faults ruptured to generate the quake, not just one (as is commonly thought).

In your medal lecture at the General Assembly in 2017 (and in your papers) you allude to the fact that the reactivation of the SW Iberian margin has even bigger implications. You suggest that staring of subduction process in the arcs of the Atlantic could ultimately lead to the ocean closing altogether?

The Wilson cycle defines the lifecycle of an ocean: first it opens and spreads, then its passive margins founder and new subduction zones develop; finally, it consumes itself and closes.

So, the question is: if subduction zones are starting in the Atlantic will it eventually close?

There are a few things to consider:

The ocean floor age is limited. It seems that it has to start to disappear after about ~ 200 million years (the oldest oceanic lithosphere is ~ 270 million years old). Passive margins in the Earth history also had life spans of the order of ~ 200 Ma, suggesting that this may not be a coincidence. I suspect that there is a dynamic reason for this…

Most researchers agree that the next major oceanic basin which is set to close is the Pacific. The Americas (to the east) are moving towards East Asia and Australia at a rate of 3-4 cm yr-1, so it should close in roughly 300 million years.

We also know that the Atlantic has been opening for 200 million years already. If you believe that the closing of the Pacific indicates that continental masses have been slowly gliding towards each other to form the next supercontinent (a theory know as extroversion); then the Atlantic has to continue to open until the Pacific closes. This would mean that ocean floor rocks in the Atlantic would be very old (up to 500 million years old!) – highly unlikely given the oldest existing oceanic rocks are 270 million years old.

The map I made during my PhD showed that the Atlantic oceanic lithosphere is already starting to break-up and is weakened.

All the pieces combined, I think the most likely outcome is that the Pacific and the Atlantic will close at the same time. This scenario would require other oceanic basins to form, and that’s possible in the existing Indian Ocean and/or the Southern Ocean. Present-day continents would be brought together to form a new supercontinent, which we called Aurica.

Aurica – the hypothetical future supercontinent formed as the result of the simultaneous closure of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans (Duarte et al., 2016, Geological Magazine).

If you take into consideration present-day plate velocities the supercontinent could be fully formed in approximately 300 million years’ time. We expect Aurica to be centred slightly north of the equator, with Australia and the Americas forming the core of the landmass.

With those findings, it is obvious why subduction has been a recurring theme in your career as a researcher. But what sparked your initial interest in geology and then tectonics in general?

I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. I was always curious and fascinated by the outdoor world. I joined the scouts when I was eight. We used to camp and explore caves by candle-light!

When I was 14 I took up speleology; there are lots of caves in the region I grew up in, in Portugal. As amateurs, my speleology group participated in archaeological and palaeontological work. The rocks in the region are mainly of Jurassic age and contain lots of fossils (including some really nice dinosaurs).

The outdoors became part of me.

I knew early on that I didn’t want a boaring job with lots of routine. I wanted a career that would allow me to discover new things.

Geology was the most obvious choice when picking a degree. I felt it offered me a great way to stay in touch with the other sciences too – physics via geophysics and biology through palaeontology.

In my 2nd year at university, I was invited to help in an analogue lab looking at problems in structural geology and geodynamics.

I was always attracted to the bigger picture. Plate tectonics unifies everything. I like how by studying tectonics you can link a lot of little things and then bring them together to look at the bigger picture.

What advice do you have for early career scientists?

When I found out about the award I was shocked because I wasn’t expecting it at all.

I always felt I wasn’t doing enough [in terms of research output]. I think that early career scientists are being pushed to limits that are unreasonable; the competition is intense. It’s not always obvious, but there is a lot of pressure to publish. But there are also a lot of very good people whose publication record doesn’t necessarily reflect their skill as a scientist.

The award made me realise I was probably doing enough!

Moving to Australia was KEY. Moving and creating collaborations with different people will make you unique. You don’t want to stay in the same institution. [By doing so] you become very linear. There are a number of schemes available (like Marie Curie and Erasmus) which allow you to move. Use these to the fullest. Moving allows you to see problems from different perspectives. And you will become more unique as a scientist.

There a lot of bright young scientist – never have we had so many – we are all unique, but you have to find the uniqueness in yourself. Most of all have fun. Do science for the right reasons and remember that people still recognise honest hard work (the award showed me that).

Interview by Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer.


Duarte, J. C., Rosas, F, M., Terrinha, P., Schellart W, P., Boutelier, D., Gutscher, M-A., and Ribeiro, A.,: Are subduction zones invading the Atlantic? Evidence from the southwest Iberia margin, GEOLOGY, 41, 8, 839–842, https://

Duarte, J. C., and Schellart W, P.,: Plate Boundaries and Natural Hazards, Geophysical Monograph, 219 (First Edition), ISBN: 978-1-119-05397–2, 2016

Duarte, J., Schellart, W., & Rosas, F.,: The future of Earth’s oceans: Consequences of subduction initiation in the Atlantic and implications for supercontinent formation, Geological Magazine, 1–14,, 2016.

Purdy, G.M.,: The Eastern End of the Azores-Gibraltar Plate Boundary, GJI, 43, 3, 973–1000,, 1975

Mueller, S., Phillips, R, J.,: On The initiation of subduction, JGR, 96, B1, 651-665,, 1991

Ribeiro, A., Cabral, J., Baptista, R., and Matias, L.,: Stress pattern in Portugal mainland and the adjacent Atlantic region, West Iberia, Tectonics, 15, 3, 641–659,, 1996






Knowing the ocean’s twists and turns

Knowing the ocean’s twists and turns

Navigating the ocean demands a knowledge of its movements. In the past, sailors have used this knowledge to their advantage, following the winds and the ocean currents to bring them on their way.

Prior to mutiny in 1789, Captain Bligh – on the HMS Bounty – famously spent a month attempting to pass westward through the Drake Passage, around Patagonia’s Cape Horn. Here the westerly winds were strong (as they are today) and drove the waters hard against the ship as it persisted against the flow. But they could not pass, and were forced to reach the Pacific by crossing back south of Africa, through the Indian Ocean, costing the mission many months.

It is the winds which predominantly drive the currents at the ocean’s surface. Depending on where you are on the planet, the winds blow in a variety of prevailing directions, exerting control over the surface of the oceans, over which they roll. Where the Earth’s westerlies prevail (moving eastwards, between the 30 to 60 degree latitude belt, in both hemispheres) we encounter some of the world’s fastest currents, including the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream, and the Kuroshio Current off Japan. These currents bring with them huge amounts of heat from tropical and subtropical areas; which is why Western Europe experiences much milder winters than other regions at similar latitudes (think Newfoundland, for example).

Also under the influence of the westerly winds is the world’s largest ocean current, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which circles Antarctica in the southern hemisphere. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current lies under the influence of the infamous Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties westerly wind bands, and acted as a major stretch along the historical clipper route between Europe, Australia, and New Zealand in the 19th century.

The trade winds (also known as the easterlies, circling the Earth between 0 and 30 degrees latitude, in both hemispheres) are typically weaker than the westerlies, but sufficiently strong to have enabled European expansion into the Americas over the centuries. The trades drive ocean currents such as the Canary Current and North Equatorial Current in the Atlantic Ocean, and the California Current and North Equatorial Current in the Pacific.

Also within these latitudes – particularly near the equator – are the doldrums, which are areas characterised by weak or non-existent winds. These regions became well known in the past as sailors were regularly stranded whilst crossing equatorial regions – immobile for days or weeks, resting in seas of calm – awaiting the winds to pick up and move them onwards.

As well as at the surface, the ocean is moving in its interior, with large scale sinking to depths of over 4000 meters in cold polar regions, and upwelling in the warmer tropics and subtropics. The ocean turns over on itself like a bathtub of water heated unevenly from above. Below the surface the deep waters move slowly (centimeters per second, rather than meters per second at the surface), mostly unaffected by wind. Here huge ocean scale water masses move (largely) because of density differences between regions, determined by variations in heat and salinity (salt content). Cold, salty water is dense, and sinks, while warmer water rises.

This large-scale overturning, which characterizes the movement of the world’s ocean as a whole, is known as the global conveyor belt, or the thermohaline circulation (thermo for heat, and haline for salt). Along the conveyor it takes thousands of years for water masses to complete a cycle around the planet.

But like many other features of our Earth system, it is now thought that the behaviour of the ocean’s circulation is beginning to change. Back at the surface oceanographers now expect that ocean currents will undergo substantial change in response to anthropogenic global warming. Computer simulations of the ocean and atmosphere are used to predict whether certain wind systems will strengthen or weaken in the future, and to look at the effect this might have on the underlying ocean currents.

We know from historical evidence that the strength of the ocean’s currents has varied in the past, so this coming century we can expect some changes along our ocean routes; an obvious and well highlighted example being the opening of commercial routes in the new ice-free Arctic.

Whatever the nature of the future ocean, modern technology including real-time satellite-sourced ocean data, and advanced ocean weather and wave forecasts, will allow us to constantly track changes, so that no matter the winds or current speeds, we should always be able to get where we’re going.

By Conor Purcell is a Science and Nature Writer with a PhD in oceanography.

Conor is based in Dublin, Ireland, and can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell, with some of his other articles at He is also the founder-editor at