seismograph earthquakes

Sensors on floor of Atlantic Ocean to measure Earth’s ‘pulse’

Image credit: Dreamstime

Some 50 highly sensitive seismometers are to be placed on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean in order to record the Earth’s ‘pulse’ and gain a better understanding of the movement of matter deep within its interior.

The seismometers, which detect vibrations due to seismic waves, will be deployed in an array across a region encompassing the Canary Islands and the archipelagos of Azores and Madeira. They will continuously record Earth’s ground motions over the course of a year.

The project particularly aims to gain more knowledge about massive “upwellings” of material pushing up from Earth’s mantle, which are poorly understood because they can occur far from the boundaries of continental plates and are therefore not covered by plate tectonic theories.

Professor Ana Ferreira of UCL Earth Sciences said: “This is a first of a kind seismic experiment. It is the first time we have covered such a large region of the North Atlantic Ocean with these highly sensitive instruments. By analysing their data, we hope to better understand the massive motions occurring hundreds of kilometres deep in the Earth’s mantle – in particular, upward flows of material that we still do not understand very well. These motions are what ultimately cause volcanic eruptions and can also lead to earthquakes.”

The project will use a new seismic imaging method that is able to characterise the structure under the Earth’s surface by analysing  waves previously used by astrophysicists to study distant galaxies.

Ferreira added: “Our data will also have a tremendous legacy, enabling a wide range of research activity from tracking whales via the sounds they make as they pass close to the seismometers, to monitoring earthquakes and volcanic tremors. The data can also be used to examine interactions between the atmosphere, oceans and solid Earth.”

Over the next five weeks, Ferreira will lead an expedition on the research vessel Mário Ruivo to carefully drop the seismometers to the ocean floor, where they will anchor themselves for a year before being collected.

Last year, Seismologists across Europe looked at the effects of the Covid-19 lockdowns on seismic activity and found a notable drop in ground vibrations.

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