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6.1. Earth study methods

Earth study methods

To know the structure of the Earth we have to do it through two types of study methods:

Direct study methods

The direct methods allow us to observe the structure and properties of the Earth directly. Logically, we can easily do this in the rocks that make up the earth's surface. But we can also know what the interior of the Earth is like through:

  • Surveys and mines. The deepest survey that has been done was carried out by the USSR and reached 12,262 meters deep, a very small distance if we compare it with the 6,371 km depth that the Earth has.
  • Volcanic eruptions. They expel materials from the earth's interior that are expelled with the magma.
  • Erosion. The erosion leaves the bare rocks formed deeper. We ourselves can imagine what the interior of the crust looks like when we look at the slope of a road, for example.

La observación en superfie es un método directo

By observing the earth's surface we can deduce how the rocks continue at depth. Image of Aliaga (Teruel).

Indirect study methods

As we cannot access the interior of the Earth, we have to deduce, from the data obtained by indirect methods, what the interior of our planet is like in order to know its structure and properties of the materials that compose it.

To do this, studying the values ​​obtained by studying some of its properties such as density, magnetism, gravity, seismic waves, or analyzing the meteorites that have reached Earth, the internal composition of the Earth can be deduced.

The seismic method

The seismic method is one of the main indirect study methods that allows us to know what the Earth's interior is like. It is based on the study of seismic waves produced in earthquakes or by controlled explosions.

Seismic waves occur at a point called the hypocenter and travel through the materials that make up the Earth. When the waves reach the earth's surface (epicenter) they propagate concentrically. As they move away from the hypocenter, the seismic waves attenuate. Analyzing the speed and trajectory of the waves we can know the chemical composition, physical state and structure of the materials that make up the internal parts of our planet.

Several types of seismic waves are distinguished:

  • P or primary wavesThey are the fastest waves, the first to be received by seismographs. The particles vibrate in the same direction as the propagation of seismic waves. They are transmitted through solid and liquid media, although they are faster in solid materials. 
  • S or secondary waves. They are slower than P waves. The particles vibrate in a direction perpendicular to the propagation of the waves. They are only transmitted through solid media.
  • L and R waves. They appear when P and S waves reach the Earth's surface. They are the slowest, the last to be recorded by seismographs. They are the most destructive waves, since they have a longer wavelength. As they are superficial, they do not provide information about the earthquake.

Ondas sísmicas P y S

By Francisco Javier Blanco González (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When the waves change medium, they are refracted, changing their trajectory and speed, so by analyzing the difference of arrival at the different seismographs of the P and S waves, it can be deduced what the interior of the Earth is like. The areas where seismic waves change speed, or may even disappear, are known as seismic discontinuities. Thus, thanks to the seismic method, it has been possible to deduce that the Earth is heterogeneous and that its structure is that of different concentric layers with different properties.

Velocidad de las ondas sísmicas

Modificado de by Steven Earle used under a CC-BY 4.0 international license

When the waves refract and change direction, seismic shadow areas are produced in which the seismic waves do not reach, which helps us to deduce at what depth this change of direction occurred and the characteristics of these materials.

Zona de sombra sísmica

By USGS, SVG by Vanessa Ezekowitz [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Interactive activity: P waves and S waves.

Interactive activity: Intensity and magnitude of an earthquake.

Video: Seismogram and images of the 1985 Mexico earthquake.

Video: Methods for studying the interior of the Earth. Bio [ESO] sfera (18:14 minutes)


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Biology and Geology teaching materials for Compulsory Secondary Education (ESO) and Baccalaureate students.