How can Scientists Tell where the Earthquake Happened?
Finding of an earthquake center
Seismograms come in handy for locating earthquakes too, and being able to see the P wave and the S wave is important. You learned how P & S waves each shake the ground in different ways as they travel through it. P waves are also faster than S waves, and this fact is what allows us to tell where an earthquake was. To understand how this works, let’s compare P and S waves to lightning and thunder.
Light travels faster than sound, so during a thunderstorm you will first see the lightning and then you will hear the thunder. If you are close to the lightning, the thunder will boom right after the lightning, but if you are far away from the lightning, you can count several seconds before you hear the thunder. The further you are from the storm, the longer it will take between the lightning and the thunder.
P waves are like the lightning, and S waves are like the thunder. The P waves travel faster and shake the ground where you are first. Then the S waves follow and shake the ground also. If you are close to the earthquake, the P and S wave will come one right after the other, but if you are far away, there will be more time between the two.
By looking at the amount of time between the P and S wave on a seismogram recorded on a seismograph, scientists can tell how far away the earthquake was from that location. However, they can’t tell in what direction from the seismograph the earthquake was, only how far away it was. If they draw a circle on a map around the station where the radius of the circle is the determined distance to the earthquake, they know the earthquake lies somewhere on the circle. But where?
Scientists then use a method called triangulation to determine exactly where the earthquake was (figure 6). It is called triangulation because a triangle has three sides, and it takes three seismographs to locate an earthquake. If you draw a circle on a map around three different seismographs where the radius of each is the distance from that station to the earthquake, the intersection of those three circles is the epicenter!