What is Seismic Tomography?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Seismographic tomography is a technique which is used to generate three dimensional images of the inside of the Earth. It is often compared to computed tomography (CT) scanning, a technique used in medicine to look inside the body. In fact, the two techniques work in very similar ways, with each method generating a series of “slices,” flat pictures in a particular plane which are created by reading the way in which energy travels through the area of interest, whether it's a body or the Earth.

Seismic tomography works in a very similar way to the CT scanners commonly used in hospitals.
Seismic tomography works in a very similar way to the CT scanners commonly used in hospitals.

Two different energy sources can be used for seismic tomography. One is earthquakes, which generate waves which can be picked up with receivers on the surface of the Earth. Using information from a group of receivers, geologists can create an image of the materials the waves passed through, because the waves will move at different rates through different types of rock. Seismic tomography can reveal the presence of various rock and soil formations, along with cavities filled with water.

Geologists can also generate waves and listen for their reflection. This technique can be used to collect data from a specific targeted area, or to supplement earthquake data to get a more complete picture of an area of interest. Waves can be generated with controlled explosions or devices which vibrate, creating a wave of energy which can be tracked by its reflections. Just as with a CT scan in the hospital, this type of tomography creates an image as the reflections of the energy bounce back to the surface.

People can use seismic tomography for all sorts of purposes. Many researchers use it when they study earthquakes to find the epicenter of the quake and to learn more about the damage caused by the quake. It can also be used to learn more about the nature of the inside of the Earth in general; since it is not possible to look deep into the Earth, seismic tomography is the only way to learn about certain topics of interest in geology. Many of the fascinating maps of subsurface formations and the inside of the Earth used in geology classes come courtesy of seismic tomography.

Data from seismographic equipment is readily available to researchers conducting seismographic tomography studies. A number of software programs are designed to do the complex math involved when interpreting seismic data. Some of these programs can work extremely quickly, which may be useful when researchers need information rapidly to use in disaster response or to keep local officials informed about ongoing geological activity.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Charred - My friend works in the oil and natural gas industry, and he says they often do a lot of seismic data processing. This is so that they can monitor where potential fault lines may lie for earthquakes and determine how it may impact oil reserves or oil tankers.

Of course they are concerned about the potential human toll as well, but other scientists are focused on that aspect, and they have alert systems to notify people when something like a potential tsunami is on the way.

Anyway, they use software to analyze the seismic data and it runs twenty four hours a day, looking for every blip or anomaly that may indicate trouble is brewing somewhere.


@hamje32 - Infrared night vision is a good analogy. Another analogy is sonar. This is similar to how the article talks about reflection, where waves are created and bounced against the ocean to form a picture of the Earth’s insides.

Sonar is used when doing fishing and it’s quite similar in my opinion. Every year I go out deep sea fishing with my parents off the Gulf Coast, and we use the famous fish finder technology to bounce waves off the ocean floor.

We get images back showing us where the schools of fish are. I think it's like reflection in that way, although I can't say for sure that it's the exact same technology.


So I guess it’s not necessary to start a journey to the center of the Earth, as the old science fiction novel would suggest. It appears the seismic method does the job quite well from how the article talks about it.

I think it’s a brilliant method actually; the ability to use heat and reflection to generate images of the data. It’s a form of indirection that reminds me of infrared night vision where heat is used to generate the resulting images.

The images in this case may not be as clear as photographs necessarily, but they are clear enough to create three dimensional images that enable us to understand what the Earth looks like beneath the crust.

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