Seismic Tomography


When scientists want to know more about the rocks deep inside the Earth, they must use other methods because they can’t observe the rocks directly with their senses. Using a technique called seismic tomography, scientists decode the information contained in seismograms’ squiggles to develop images of individual slices through the deep Earth. These images are used to understand not only the composition of Earth’s interior, but also to help explain geologic mysteries, like how the Sierra Nevada mountains formed and why there has been so much volcanism in eastern Oregon. 



  • Seismic tomography allows us to visualize cross sections of the crust and mantle and works through a process similiar to a CT scan (or CAT scan) of the Earth 
  • The EarthScope project will allow scientists to image North America at an unprecidented resolution

Related Animations

Seismic tomography is an imaging technique that uses seismic waves generated by earthquakes and explosions to create computer-generated, three-dimensional images of Earth's interior. CAT scans are often used as an analogy. Here we simplify things and make an Earth of uniform density with a slow zone that we image as a magma chamber.

Animation Novice

Seismic waves travel at different speeds through different materials. In this 2-layer model two wave fronts leave an impact at the same time but the lower layer is faster. 

Animation Novice

Seismic shadow zones have taught us much about the inside of the earth. This shows how P waves travel through solids and liquids, but S waves are stopped by the liquid outer core.

Animation Novice

The shadow zone results from S waves being stopped entirely by the liquid core. Three different S-wave phases show how the initial S wave is stopped (damped), or how it changes when encountering boundaries in the Earth. 

Animation Novice

The wave properties of light are used as an analogy to help us understand seismic-wave behavior.

Animation Novice

The shadow zone is the area of the earth from angular distances of 104 to 140 degrees from a given earthquake that does not receive any direct P waves. The different phases show how the initial P wave changes when encountering boundaries in the Earth.

Animation Novice

Related Lessons

Learning occurs as students work first in small groups and then as a whole class to compare predicted seismic wave travel times, generated by students from a scaled Earth model, to observed seismic data from a recent earthquakes. This activity uses models, real data and emphasizes the process of science.

Lesson Novice

In this multi-step lab, students explore the concepts of seismic wave propagation through materials with different mechanical properties, and examine seismic evidence from a recent earthquake to infer Earth’s internal structure and composition.  This lab is designed to be done with an instructor present to answer questions and guide students to conclusions

Lesson Intermediate

Related Fact-Sheets

Earthquakes create seismic waves that travel through the Earth. By analyzing these seismic waves, seismologists can explore the Earth's deep interior. This fact sheet uses data from the 1994 magnitude 6.9 earthquake near Northridge, California to illustrate both this process and Earth's interior structure.

NOTE: Out of Stock; self-printing only.

Fact-Sheet Novice

Related Posters

Seismic waves from earthquakes ricochet throughout Earth's interior and are recorded at geophysical observatories around the world. The paths of some of those seismic waves and the ground motion that they caused are used by seismologists to illuminate Earth's deep interior.

Poster Intermediate