What is Seismic Testing?

Alexis W.

Seismic testing is a form of scientific testing that is primarily used for two different but related purposes. It is used to predict the occurrence of earthquakes and it is used to discover natural gas reserves. The basic science of seismic testing for earthquakes has advanced considerably since the advent of the technique. Seismic simulations also are used to measure the possible impact of earthquakes in sensitive areas.

Seismic testing data is often used to locate oil for drilling purposes.
Seismic testing data is often used to locate oil for drilling purposes.

When seismic testing was developed in the early 1920’s, it was designed to detect patterns that indicate an impending earthquake. It was later discovered that this same technology also could be used to measure the presence of petroleum and natural gas in seas and oceans. Following this discovery, seismic testing became a highly popular geophysical method of exploration of natural gas. It is used mainly due to the high levels of accuracy it guarantees as a method of exploration; however, perfect predictions are not always possible because the things being analyzed lie buried thousands of feet below the sea.

Seismic testing is a method used to predict and measure earthquakes.
Seismic testing is a method used to predict and measure earthquakes.

Geophysicists and geologists use certain techniques to gather information about the location of natural gas or earthquakes. Seismic testing is usually carried out after first making geological surveys. The sub-surface texture of some areas offers vital clues to testers. Then, these scientists use tools such as geophones to analyze properties of these areas in relation to their porosity, age, formation structure, and permeability to arrive at conclusions.

Seismic testing has acquired great importance within the United States because a major share of American oil is imported from outside the country. It is estimated that about a quarter of America’s oil and nearly a third of natural gas in the U.S. comes from offshore sources. As a result, America continues to search for alternatives to offshore oil. This has elevated the scale of oil exploration and has increased the importance of seismic testing.

While seismic testing as a method used to predict and measure earthquakes generally is not controversial, its second use is highly contentious. The crux of the controversy relates to the fact that artificial methods of waves and sounds could also produce the same conditions needed to map geological formations. The methods used for this have become the central point of debate.

Seismic-induced waves inflict heavy damage on the environment, especially on marine life. The heavy sounds and vibrations can cause permanent damage to marine animals. Such testing can also cause damage to tourist spots such as Florida and California. Secondly, many people object to offshore drilling in certain areas and locations, therefore also objecting to the testing done to determine whether that drilling is appropriate.

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Discussion Comments


I suppose I've never paid much attention to how natural gas deposits were located offshore, but this makes sense.

The environmental question concerns me also. As someone who saw first hand the destruction of the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, I am leery of many methods that were previously thought to be safe, but are actually quite destructive.

Obviously, seismic testing is crucial for earthquake prediction and detection, but I would urge caution for its use in detecting natural gas deposits. This old ball of dirt is the only one we've got, and I think we need to be responsible stewards.

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