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seismometers

Weathering the storm from a research vessel

Weathering the storm from a research vessel

Fieldwork can take geoscientists to some of the most remote corners of the Earth in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, but stories from the field hardly make it into a published paper. In this blog post, Raffaele Bonadio, a PhD student in seismology at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in Ireland, shares a particularly formidable experience in the field while aboard a research vessel in the North Atlantic Ocean.  

We knew it would be stormy that night. At the previous evening’s briefing, the captain of the ship, composed and collected, notified us that we needed to make a diversion from the planned route to avoid getting too close to the eye of the storm, “We’ll slow down the vessel…” “kind of five metres swell expected”. He was calm and comfortable. The crew members were calm and comfortable. We, the guest scientists, were not.

Why were we in the middle of the ocean?

I was part of a team of researchers from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies working on the project SEA-SEIS (Structure, Evolution and Seismicity of the Irish offshore). Our task was to deploy a suite of seismometers on the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean from our research vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer, to investigate the geological evolution of the Irish offshore.

A map of the North Atlantic Ocean, showing the locations of seismometers deployed by the team’s research vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer. Credit: Raffaele Bonadio

Why study the Irish offshore?

The tectonic plate that Ireland sits on was deformed and stretched to form the deep basins offshore. The plate then broke, and its parts drifted away from each other, as the northern Atlantic Ocean opened. Hot currents in the convecting mantle of the Earth caused volcanic eruptions and rocks to melt 50-100 km below the Earth’s surface. These hot currents may have come from a spectacular hot plume rising all the way from the Earth’s core-mantle boundary (at 2891 km depth) to just beneath Iceland.

What do ocean bottom seismometers do?

Ocean bottom seismometers record the tiny vibrations of the Earth caused by seismic waves, generated by earthquakes and ocean waves. As the waves propagate through the Earth’s interior on their way to the seismic stations, they accumulate information on the structure of the Earth that they encounter. Seismologists know how to decode the wiggles on the seismograms to obtain this information. With this data, they can do a 3D scan (tomography) of what’s inside the Earth.

One of the research team’s seismometers being dropped into the North Atlantic Ocean. The instruments sink to the bottom of the ocean, where they measure the Earth’s movement. Credit: SEA-SEIS Team

In this project, we want to better understand how the structure of the tectonic plate varies from across the North Atlantic and what happens beneath the plates. And is there an enormous hot plume beneath Iceland, responsible for the country’s volcanoes today and the formation of Giant’s Causeway in Ireland? This is what we hope we will find out!

Experiencing an ocean storm

We were aboard the ship about 9 days and had just deployed “Ligea”, the 14th seismometer before the captain had notified us that a storm was heading our way.

While we were told in advance of the approaching storm, there was no way we could have imagined what it would be like to be in the middle of a stormy ocean. I had only heard some stories and I didn’t fully believe them…

I was awakened by the sound of my table lamp smashing on the ground, even the 15 cm protection edge around the table couldn’t help. The closet door opened and hit the wall. I managed not to fall off the bed, pointing my legs and make a crack with my back. I heard one of my colleagues laughing in the next cabin after a loud thud. “Did he just fall off the bed?” I thought to myself – his laugh did sound a bit of hysterical.

I realized a big wave had crashed on the side of the ship. I couldn’t believe that water and metal crashing together could make such a harsh bang. The previous evening was a continuation of bangs, splashes, sprinkles, bloops, clangs, and creaks … but even with all these noises and disturbances, I managed to sleep, exhausted from dizziness and sea-sickness.

I checked the clock on the wall: it was 3:20 in the morning. I looked at the porthole, due to the vertical movement my cabin was underwater half of the time. I walked through the cabin, trying to reach the toilet. “Oh, I wish they made the cabin smaller! I can’t reach both walls with my arms,” I said to myself. I opened the tap to refresh my face, the flowing water danced right and left across the basin. I then climbed up to the deck, I had to literally climb up the stairs. Up there I couldn’t see anything but darkness; I couldn’t see the boundary between the sky and the sea.

More than a week had passed since our departure, yet my body had still not adapted to this incessant movement. My eyes could not follow my body and my stomach did not react well, I couldn’t see anymore what was horizontal and what wasn’t. However, I wasn’t even scared, I believed nobody on the ship was (or is it only that I wanted to believe this?). It wasn’t fear, but rather an unceasing uncomfortable feeling: I knew I was more than 900 km from any dry land, in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, on a 66 m long vessel; I knew the captain and the crew were working hard to take us far from the storm. I was not scared…

In a few hours we were planning to deploy an ocean bottom seismometer, a very sophisticated device that is able to operate at huge pressures at the bottom of the ocean; released from the ship it would sink and install itself on the seafloor 4 km under the surface of the waves. In other words, a 200 kg ‘little orange elephant’, as the students who supported us from land every day liked to call it! “Will we be able to deploy? Will we be able not to crash the instrument on the sides? Will we instead be able to keep our balance and walk up to the deck?”

“Yes, we will.”

How did this look like? Find out more in this video:

 

So, what did we accomplish?

As part of the SEA-SEIS project, led by Dr. Sergei Lebedev, our research team successfully deployed 18 seismometers at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. The network covers the entire Irish offshore, with a few sensors also in the UK and Iceland’s waters. The ocean-bottom seismometers were deployed between 17 September and 5 October, 2018, and will be retrieved in April of 2020.

To find out more about the SEA-SEIS Projects, have a look at SEA-SEIS or check out our introductory video.

By Raffaele Bonadio, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Ireland

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.

Hurriquakes?

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?

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sediments make the colour

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sediments make the colour

Earth is spectacularly beautiful, especially when seen from a bird’s eye view. This image, of a sweeping pattern made by a river in Iceland is testimony to it.

The picture shows river Leirá which drains sediment-loaded glacial water from the Myrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland. Myrdalsjökull glacier covers Katla, one of Iceland’s most active and ice-covered volcanoes.

A high sediment load (the suspended particles which are transported in river water) is typical for these glacial rivers and is visible as the fast-flowing glacial river (on the right of this image) appears light brown in colour. The sediment is gradually lost in the labyrinth of small lakes and narrow, crooked connections between lakes as can be seen as a gradual change in colour to dark blue.

The sediment load, height of the water  and chemistry of this and other glacial rivers are measured partly in real-time by the Icelandic Meteorological Office. This is done for research purposes and in order to detect floods from subglacial lakes that travel up to several tens of kilometers beneath the glacier before they reach a glacial river.

These glacial outburst floods do not only threaten people, livestock and property, but also infrastructure such as Route 1, a circular, national road which runs around the island. They occur regularly due to volcanic activity or localized geothermal melting on the volcano, creating a need for an effective early-warning system.

Advances in the last years include the usage of GPS instruments on top of a subglacial lake and the flood path in order to increase the early-warning for these floods. In 2015, the GPS network, gave scientists on duty at the Icelandic Meteorological Office 3.5 days of warning before one of the largest floods from western Vatnajökull emerged from beneath the ice.

The peak discharge exceeded 2000 m3/s,  which is comparable to an increase in discharge from that of the Thames to that of the Rhine.  This flood was also pioneeringly monitored with clusters of seismometers, so called arrays (from University College Dublin & Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Ireland), that enabled an early-warning of at least 20 hours and allowed to track the flood front merely using the ground vibrations it excited. The flood propagated under the glacier at a speed of around 2 km/h; so assuming you can keep up the speed over nearly a day you can escape the flood by walking while it is moving beneath the glacier.

Related publications about the tracking of these subglacial floods will emerge in the published literature soon (real time update available at www.evapseibl.wordpress.com).

By Eva Eibl, researcher at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Thanks go to www.volcanoheli.is who organised this trip.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.