Geophysical stamps 4: Seismology

This is the last in a series of posts about some stamps I bought on eBay in May. I don't collect stamps, but these were irresistible to me. They are 1980-vintage East German stamps, not with cartoons or schematic illustrations but precisely draughted drawings of geophysical methods. I have already written about the the gravimeterthe sonic tool, and the geophone stamps; today it's time to finish off and cover the 50 pfennig stamp, depicting global seismology.

← The 50 pfennig stamp in the series of four shows not an instrument, but the method of deep-earth seismology. Earthquakes' seismic traces, left-most, are the basic pieces of data. Seismologists analyse the paths of these signals through the earth's crust (Erdkruste), mantle (Mantel) and core (Erdkern), right-most. The result is a model of the earth's deep interior, centre. Erdkrustenforschung translates as earth crust surveying. The actual size of the stamp is 43 × 26 mm.

To petroleum geophysicists and interpreters, global seismology may seem like a poor sibling of reflection seismology. But the science began with earthquake monitoring, which is centuries old. Earthquakes are the natural source of seismic energy for global seismological measurements; Zoeppritz wrote his equations about earthquake waves. (I don't know, but I can imagine seismologists feeling a guilty pang of anticipation when hearing of even quite deadly earthquakes.)

The M9.2 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake of 2004 lasted for an incredible 500 seconds—compared to a few seconds or tens of seconds for most earthquakes felt by humans. Giant events like this are rare (once a decade), and especially valuable because of the broad band of frequencies and very high amplitudes they generate. This allows high-fidelity detection by precision digital instruments like the Streckeisen STS-1 seismometer, positioned all over the world in networks like the United States' Global Seismographic Network, and the meta-network coordinated by the Federation of Digital Seismograph Networks, or FDSN. And these wavefields need global receiver arrays. 

The basic structure of the earth was famously elucidated decades ago by these patterns of wave reflection and refraction through the earth's fundamentally concentric spheres of the solid inner core, liquid outer core, viscous mantle, and solid crust. For example, the apparent inability of the outer core to support S-waves is the primary evidence for its interpretation as a liquid. Today, global seismologists are more concerned with the finer points of this structure, and eking more resolution out of the intrinsically cryptic filter that is the earth. Sound familiar? What we do in exploration seismology is just a high-resolution, narrow-band, controlled-source extension of these methods. 

Geophysical stamps 3: Geophone

Back in May I bought some stamps on eBay. I'm not really a stamp collector, but when I saw these in all their geophysical glory, I couldn't resist them. They are East German stamps from 1980, and they are unusual because they aren't schematic illustrations so much as precise, technical drawings. I have already written about the the gravimeter and the sonic tool stamps; today I thought I'd tell a bit about the most basic seismic sensor, the geophone.

← The 35 pfennig stamp in the series of four shows a surface geophone, with a schematic cross-section and cartoon of the seismic acquisition process, complete with ray-paths and a recording truck. Erdöl and Erdgas are oil and gas, Erkundung translates as surveying or exploration. The actual size of the stamp is 43 × 26 mm.

There are four basic types of seismic sensor (sometimes generically referred to as receivers in exploration geophysics):

Seismometers — precision instruments not used in exploration seismology because they are usually quite bulky and require careful set-up and calibration. [Most modern models] are accelerometers, much like relative gravimeters, measuring ground acceleration from the force on a proof mass. Seismometers can detect frequencies in a very broad band, on the order of 0.001 Hz to 500 Hz: that's 19 octaves!

Geophones — are small, cheap, and intended for rapid deployment in large numbers. The one illustrated on the stamp, like the modern cut-away example shown here, would be about 4 × 20 cm, with a total mass of about 400 g. The design has barely changed in decades. The mean-looking spike is to try to ensure good contact with the ground (coupling). A frame-mounted magnet is surrounded by a proof mass affixed to a copper coil. This analog instrument measures particle [velocity], not acceleration, as the differential motion induces a current in the coil. Because of the small proof mass, the lower practical frequency limit is usually only about 6 Hz, the upper about 250 Hz (5 octaves). Geophones are used on land, and on the sea-floor. If repeatability over time is important, as with a time-lapse survey, phones like this may be buried in the ground and cemented in place.

Hydrophones — as the name suggests, are for deployment in the water column. Naturally, there is a lot of non-seismic motion in water, so measuring displacement will not do. Instead, hydrophones contain two piezoelectric components, which generates a current when deformed by pressure, and use cunning physics to mute spurious, non-seismic pressure changes. Hydrophones are usually towed in streamers behind a boat. They have a similar response band to geophones.

MEMS accelerometers — exactly like the accelerometer chip in your laptop or cellphone, these tiny mechanical systems can be housed in a robust casing and used to record seismic waves. Response frequencies range from 4–1000 Hz (8 octaves; theoretically they will measure down to 0 Hz, or DC in geophysish, but not in my experience). These are sometimes referred to as digital receivers, but they are really micro-analog devices with built-in digital conversion. 

I think the geophone is the single most important remote sensing device in geoscience. Is that justified hyperbole? A couple of recent stories from Scotland and Spain have highlighted the incredible clarity of seismic images, which can be awe-inspiring as well as scientifically and economically important.

Next time I'll look at the 50 pfennig stamp, which depicts deep seismic tomography. 

Geophysical stamps 2: Sonic

Recently I bought some stamps on eBay. This isn't something I've done before, but when I saw these stamps I couldn't resist their pure geophysical goodness. They are East German stamps from 1980, and they are unusual because they aren't fanciful illustrations, but precise, technical drawings. Last week I described the gravimeter; today it's the turn of a borehole instrument, the sonic tool.

← The 25 pfennig stamp in the series of four shows a sonic tool, complete with the logged data on the left, and a cross-section on the right. Bohrlochmessung means well-logging; Wassererkundung translates as water exploration. The actual size of the stamp is 43 × 26 mm.

The tool has two components: a transmitter and a recevier. It is lowered to the bottom of the target interval and logs data while being pulled up the hole. In its simplest form, an ultrasound pulse (typically 20–40 kHz) is emitted from the transmitter, travels through the formation, and is recorded at the receiver. The interval transit time is recorded continuously, giving the trace shown on left hand side of the stamp. Transit time is measured in µs/m (or µs/ft if you're old-school), and is generally between 160 µs/m and 550 µs/m (or, in terms of velocity, 1800 m/s to 6250 m/s). Geophysicists often use the transit time to estimate seismic velocities; it's important to correct for the phenomenon called dispersion: lower-frequency seismic waves travel more slowly than the high-frequency waves measured by these tools.

Sonic logs are used for all sorts of other things, for example:

  • Predicting the seismic response (when combined with the bulk density log)
  • Predicting porosity, because of the large difference between velocity in fluids vs minerals
  • Predicting pore pressure, an important safety concern and reservoir property
  • Measuring anisotropy, especially due to oriented fractures (important for permeability)
  • Qualitatively predicting lithology, especially coals (slow), salt (4550 m/s), dolomite (fast)

Image credit: National Energy Technology Lab.Modern tools are not all that different from early sonic tools. They measure the same thing, but with better electronics for improved vertical resolution and noise attenuation. The biggest innovations are dipole sonic tools for accurate shear-wave velocities, multi-azimuth tools for measuring anisotropy, high resolution tools, and high-pressure, high-temperature (HPHT) tools.

Another relatively recent advance is reliable sonic-while-drilling tools such as Schlumberger's sonicVISION™ system, the receiver array of which is shown here (for the 6¾" tool).

The sonic tool may be the most diversely useful of all the borehole logging tools. In a totally contrived scenario where I could only run a single tool, it would have to be the sonic, especially if I had seismic data... What would you choose?

Next time I'll look at the 35 pfennig stamp, which shows a surface geophone. 

Geophysical stamps

About a month ago I tweeted about some great 1980 East German stamps I'd seen on eBay. I impulsively bought them and they arrived a couple of weeks ago. I thought I'd write a bit about them and the science that inspired them. This week: Gravimeter.

East Germany in 1980 was the height of 'consumer socialism' under Chairman & General Secretary Eric Honecker. Part of this movement was a new appreciation for economic growth, and the role of science and technology in the progress of society. Putting the angsts and misdeeds of the Cold War to one side, perhaps these stamps reflect the hopes for modernity and prosperity.

← The 20 pfennig stamp from the set of four 1980 stamps from the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). The illustration shows a relative gravimeter, the profile one might expect over a coal field (top), and a cross section through a coal deposit. Braunkohlenerkundung translates roughly as brown coal survey. Brown coal is lignite, a low-grade, low maturity coal.

There are two types of gravimeter: absolute and relative. Absolute gravimeters usually time the free-fall of a mass in a vacuum. The relative gravimeter is also a simple instrument. It must be level to measure the downward force, hence the adjustable legs. Inside the cylinder, a reference body called a proof mass is held by a spring and an electrostatic restoring force. If the gravitational force on the mass changes, the electrostatic force required to restore its position indicates the change in the gravitational field.

Fundamentally, all gravimeters measure acceleration due to gravity. Surprisingly, geophysicists do not generally use SI units, but the CGS system (centimetre–gram–second system). Thus the standard reporting units for gravimetry are not m/s2 but cm/s2, or gals (sometimes known as galileos, symbol Gal). In this system, the acceleration due to gravity at the earth's surface is approximately 980 Gal. Variations due to elevation and subsurface geology are measured in mGal or even µGal.

Image credit: David Monniaux, from, licensed under CC-BY-SA

Some uses for gravimeters:

  • Deep crustal structure (given the density of the crust)
  • Mineral exploration (for example, low gravity due to coal, as shown on the stamp)
  • Measuring peak ground acceleration due to natural or induced seismicity
  • Geodesic measurement, for example in defining the geoid and reference ellipsoid
  • Calibration and standards in metrology

Modern relative gravimeters use the same basic engineering, but of course has much better sensitivity, smaller errors, improved robustness, remote operation, and a more user-friendly digital interface. Vibrational noise suppression is also quite advanced, with physical isolation and cunning digital signal processing algorithms. The model shown here is the Autograv CG-5 from Scintrex in Concord, Ontario, Canada. It's designed for portability and ease of use.

Have you ever wielded a gravimeter? I've never met one face to face, but I love tinkering with precision instruments. I bet they pop up on eBay occasionally...

Next time I'll look at the the 25 pfennig stamp, which depicts a sonic borehole  tool.