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Seismic Signals

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 10.21.05
  • NOVA

Not so long ago, people living near volcanoes had little that might help them to anticipate an eruption. A deep rumble, a puff of smoke, and ash might foreshadow a major volcanic event. Or a volcano might erupt with no warning at all. This interactive activity from NOVA Online illustrates some of the clues modern seismologists are using to better understand activity deep within a volcano, in hopes of improving their ability to predict eruptions.

Supplemental Media Available: Seismic Signals (Document)

NOVA Seismic Signals
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  • Media Type: Interactive
  • Size: 16.4 KB
  • Level: Grades 6-12

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Source: NOVA: "Volcano's Deadly Warning"

This resource can be found on the NOVA: “Volcano's Deadly Warning" Web site.

Background

The majority of earthquakes and volcanoes occur along the boundaries of tectonic plates. At these boundaries, slabs of oceanic or continental crust collide, slide alongside each other, or are torn apart. Their movement is driven by convection currents in molten material in Earth's mantle.

Plate boundaries are violent places. Slabs of solid rock that may be more than 30 kilometers (98 ft) thick are created or destroyed. Subduction zones, where oceanic crust is forced back into Earth's molten mantle, give rise to 80 percent of the world's earthquakes and volcanoes. The Circum-Pacific Belt or Ring of Fire, which stretches up the western coasts of South and North America, across the Aleutian Islands, and down the eastern coasts of Asia, is one such zone. The Mediterranean Belt, which divides Africa and Europe, is a smaller boundary zone, but it is extremely active, especially with respect to earthquakes.

Earthquakes and volcanoes often occur independently of one another. In some cases, however, as this interactive activity describes, earthquake activity may foreshadow volcanic eruptions. Over the past decade or so, scientists have begun to read the seismic vibrations within volcanoes to try to better predict the timing and intensity of eruptions.

To measure earthquakes generated by volcanoes, scientists use a seismometer -- the same apparatus used to measure other types of earthquakes -- which records vibrations of Earth's crust. When rocks crack or slip past each other, or when magma applies pressure to the inside of a volcano's magma channel, the surrounding rock vibrates much the way a tuning fork vibrates when it is struck. Seismometers record both the intensity of the vibration, measured by the height of the line on the seismogram, as well as the vibration's frequency, measured by the distance between the peaks or valleys on the graph. Scientists use the information they collect from seismic events to gain a better understanding of volcanic activity inside a volcano, and if and when it might erupt.

To learn more about the internal structure of volcanoes and how they erupt, check out Anatomy of a Volcano and Volcanic Features.

To learn more about the instruments scientists use to detect earthquakes, check out Earthquakes: The Seismograph.

Questions for Discussion

    • Why and how can scientists use earthquakes caused by volcanoes to predict volcanic eruptions?
    • What do scientists use seismometers for?
    • Compare the four types of volcano-related earthquakes, including how they are triggered and the types of seismic pattern they produce.
    • What kinds of seismic signs would you look for that could help predict volcanic eruptions?

Resource Produced by:


					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:


						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:


						National Science Foundation



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