What Type of Data Can an Ocean-Bottom Seismometer Gather?


Angela Bailey

What Type of Data Can an Ocean-Bottom Seismometer Gather?

An ocean-bottom seismometer (OBS) is a highly specialized instrument used to monitor and study seismic activity beneath the ocean floor. These devices are deployed on the seabed and can provide valuable insights into the Earth’s structure, tectonic activity, and even the presence of natural resources.

Seismic Waves:

To understand what data an OBS can gather, it’s essential to first comprehend seismic waves. Seismic waves are vibrations that travel through the Earth in response to energy released during earthquakes or other geological activities. There are three primary types of seismic waves:

  • P-waves (Primary Waves): P-waves are the fastest seismic waves and can travel through solids, liquids, and gases. They cause particles in the ground to move back and forth in the same direction as the wave is propagating.
  • S-waves (Secondary Waves): S-waves are slower than P-waves and can only travel through solid materials.

    They cause particles in the ground to move perpendicular to the direction of wave propagation.

  • Surface Waves: Surface waves are slower than both P-waves and S-waves and only propagate along or near the Earth’s surface. They cause shaking and rolling motion, often responsible for most of the earthquake damage.

Data Collected by OBS:

An OBS is designed to detect and record these seismic waves, providing scientists with crucial information about Earth’s interior. Here are some types of data that can be gathered by an OBS:

1. Seismic Waveform Data:

The primary function of an OBS is to capture and record seismic waveforms.

These waveforms contain valuable information about the amplitude, frequency, and duration of the seismic waves. By analyzing these waveforms, scientists can determine the location, magnitude, and characteristics of earthquakes or other geological events.

2. Crustal Structure:

Seismic waves travel at different velocities through different materials.

By studying the arrival times and properties of seismic waves recorded by OBSs at various locations, scientists can infer the structure and composition of the Earth’s crust beneath the ocean floor. This knowledge helps in understanding plate tectonics, volcanic activity, and the formation of underwater geological features.

3. Subsurface Fluids:

OBSs can also detect the presence of subsurface fluids such as water, oil, or gas reservoirs.

When seismic waves encounter fluid-filled layers or pockets beneath the seabed, their velocity and amplitude change significantly compared to surrounding rock formations. By analyzing these changes in seismic data collected by OBSs, scientists can identify potential energy resources or investigate fluid migration patterns.

4. Seafloor Bathymetry:

In addition to recording seismic data, many OBSs are equipped with depth sensors that measure water depth (bathymetry) accurately. This data helps create detailed maps of seafloor topography and can be used for marine geology studies, underwater mapping projects, or even identifying potential hazards like undersea volcanic vents.


Ocean-bottom seismometers play a critical role in understanding Earth’s dynamic processes beneath the ocean floor. By capturing seismic waveforms and studying their characteristics, scientists can gain insights into earthquake behavior, crustal structure, subsurface fluids, and seafloor mapping. These instruments contribute significantly to our knowledge of Earth’s geology and help us better comprehend the complex dynamics of our planet.

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