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Measuring Earthquake Magnitude

Scientists use seismometers to measure earthquake magnitude.

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Measuring Earthquake Magnitude

Can you read a seismogram?

What information can you pick out of this seismograph? Can you see arrival of the P- and S-waves? How many earthquakes were there? Were there foreshocks or aftershocks? At what times do all of these things happen?

Measuring Magnitude

A seismograph produces a graph-like representation of the seismic waves it receives and records them onto a seismogram (Figure below). Seismograms contain information that can be used to determine how strong an earthquake was, how long it lasted, and how far away it was. Modern seismometers record ground motions using electronic motion detectors. The data are then kept digitally on a computer.

These seismograms show the arrival of P-waves and S-waves. The surface waves arrive just after the S-waves and are difficult to distinguish. Time is indicated on the horizontal portion (or x-axis) of the graph.

If a seismogram records P-waves and surface waves but not S-waves, the seismograph was on the other side of the Earth from the earthquake. The amplitude of the waves can be used to determine the magnitude of the earthquake, which will be discussed in a later section.

Interpreting a Seismogram

The seismogram in the introduction shows:

  • foreshocks.
  • the arrival of the P-waves.
  • the arrival of the S-waves.
  • the arrival of the surface waves (very hard to pick out).
  • aftershocks.
  • the times when all of these things occur.


  • seismograph: An instrument that measures and records details of earthquakes, such as force and duration.
  • seismogram: A printed record produced by a seismograph.
  • seismometer: An all-digital version of a seismograph.


  • A seismograph records seismic waves on a seismogram. A seismometer is a digital seismic wave recorder.
  • Since S-waves do not travel through liquids, a seismogram with no S-waves is on the other side of the planet.
  • Seismographs yield a tremendous amount of information about an earthquake.


Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.


1. What was the largest earthquake in history?

2. What is Earthscope doing?

3. Why are the seismometers being installed?

4. How many instruments are being installed with this project?

5. How far apart are the seismometers being distributed?

6. what do researchers hope to do with the data?


1. Define seismograph, seismogram, and seismometer.

2. What does a seismogram with P-waves but not S-waves mean?

3. How can you tell a main earthquake from foreshocks and afterschocks?

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