Seismology: Definition & History

Instructor: Josh Corbat

Josh has taught Earth Science and Physical Science at the High School level and holds a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

There are only a few branches of sciences that exist primarily to prevent damage to property and loss of life. Seismology is just such a study. In this lesson, we will discuss what seismology is and dive into some of its history.

What is Seismology?

Hollywood is great at scaring us by making unlikely events seem terrifyingly real. Jaws is a movie about a killer shark, when in real life shark attacks are very rare. The Day After Tomorrow is a movie about sudden climate change, which is an extremely unlikely event. But not all disaster movies are improbable; Hollywood has produced several movies that focus on the destruction caused by earthquakes, and that is one threat that's all too real.

Earthquakes are terribly disastrous events. It is difficult for scientists to predict the damage that will be done by any individual earthquake and nearly impossible to predict when that earthquake will actually occur. Earthquakes and their effects are among some of the most important phenomena to study, because they are directly linked to massive amounts of property damage and loss of human life.

Seismology is the study of earthquakes, their waves, and the resulting effects. Seismologists not only study earthquakes as they happen, but also try to create models to predict when and where earthquakes might occur. They also study the effects of earthquakes, like seismic waves (and there are many types of those) and tsunamis. Tsunamis are massive ocean waves caused by an undersea earthquake, and they can be quite destructive to coastal communities.

History of Seismology

The study of earthquakes is not a new science. Writings about earthquakes and their possible causes date back to 585 BCE. Chinese scientists as early as 132 CE utilized the first seismic recording device. Some of the measurements taken by these early scientists were surprisingly sophisticated and accurate.

In about 1755, modern seismology began to take root. Scientists began to attribute the movement of Earth's crust to shifting rocks below the surface, which is exactly what was happening. Since that time, seismology became more and more refined, leading to more accurate theories about the movement of the Earth.

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In which year did modern earthquake record keeping begin?

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