At a Glance
Imagine you are sitting at a boardroom table with clients discussing the large complicated-looking map spread out in front of you. You are a seismologist and this map is a computer-generated image of a section of land 25 metres below Earth?s surface. These clients are a group of engineers working on a large oil project in the northern part of the province. They have come to you for information on seismic readings and geological subsurface maps of the area. They need this information before they can start designing and building the pipelines, wells, and refineries proposed for the area.
As a seismologist, you have been studying seismic activity in the area for years, ever since oil and gas companies started exploring in this region. Until then, most seismological data for the area came from earthquakes, which were both infrequent and distant. But when you heard about the oil and gas exploration, this became a golden opportunity to gather new data. You and a team of technicians went to the area to install seismographs, instruments that collect and record vibrations in the earth, and lines of geophones, which are small seismometers. As oil and gas companies moved in, they started generating their own seismic waves from underground blasting, drilling, and driving heavy trucks and machinery through the area.
Your seismographs captured this data, which you analyzed and turned into geological subsurface maps based on different vibration frequencies. The maps will give these engineers a better picture of what the earth looks like far below the surface, including potential oil or natural gas deposits.
Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a seismologist:
- Analyze and interpret daily seismic records to identify and distinguish different seismic sources such as earthquakes and mine and quarry blasts.
- Use data to evaluate seismic hazards and provide results to engineering companies.
- Analyze seismic data in relation to geological composition and structure, and construct models of the subsurface.
- Process data using computer algorithms.
- Produce maps of shaking intensity after an earthquake.
- Develop methodologies to improve upon conventional interpretation approaches, including writing new computer algorithms to manipulate data.
- Communicate with the media and public to educate people about earthquakes and earthquake preparedness.
- Inform critical infrastructure, emergency response groups and the media when large earthquakes have occurred.
- Write scientific reports and publish study findings.
Seismologists work in a variety of locations, including:
In the office:
- Analyzing data collected in the field using existing software or by developing new algorithms
- Compiling survey information and seismic data
- Creating maps and extrapolating information from seismic data
- Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, colleagues, government departments, and stakeholders
- Preparing presentations and writing scientific research papers
In the field:
- Carrying out seismology surveys
- Testing equipment
In the lab:
- Setting up and testing instruments
Where to Work
There are a number of places seismologists can find employment. They include:
- Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
- Universities, colleges, and research institutes
- Environmental and engineering consulting firms
- Geophysical firms, for example, oil and gas exploration
- Resource firms, including oil and gas and mining
- Independent data-processing companies
- Self-employed consultant
Education and Skills
If you are a high school student considering a career as a seismologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:
- Computer Science
In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a seismologist is a university undergraduate degree, though the majority of positions are in research and require graduate studies. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a seismologist, the following programs are most applicable:
It is not mandatory to be certified in order to work as a seismologist, though in certain industries, for example, oil and gas, seismologists may require licensing as a geoscientist with their provincial association. Requirements for licensing and certification vary among provinces.
“I thought it was fascinating,” recalls Alison Bird of the first earthquake she experienced while living in Vancouver. Years later, Alison was working in Ontario and looking to return to British Columbia but was concerned about finding work. Flipping through a University of Victoria academic calendar, she saw something that intrigued her. “I had never noticed that you could take courses in earthquake seismology. I thought, maybe if I don’t get work right away, I’ll take some courses.”
Fortunately for Alison, she didn’t find work right away, and a couple of seismology courses snowballed into a master’s degree. “It was the best choice I could have made—I love what I do.” Now Alison is an Earthquake Seismologist for the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) in B.C. Much of her time is spent at her desk performing duties such as processing earthquake data and conducting earthquake analyses that go into the National Building Code of Canada. Alison also interacts with the public as part of her job.
She does this in a number of ways, including conducting tours of the GSC facilities and making public presentations. Alison enjoys her outreach work. “It’s a great way to educate people. The more people that are prepared for earthquakes, the better we’ll be able to handle a large scale quake.” She also likes the engineering and scientific aspects of her job. This includes calculating seismic hazards, analyzing seismic data, constructing computer maps and writing new computer algorithms to interpret seismic data. Alison says it is an empowering feeling to know that people rely on her scientific abilities to interpret the numbers she gathers into information Canadians can use to prepare themselves for a potential earthquake.
There are drawbacks to Alison’s work, however. The largest one is preparing for the aftermath of a large earthquake. She admits “it can be very saddening,” trying to understand and handle such large-scale devastation. Another drawback is the public’s misconception of the role of a seismologist: “A lot of people think we know how to predict earthquakes and when they’re going to happen and that we’re just not telling anyone!” Alison says that it’s impossible to predict earthquakes and that her job is not about fear-mongering but about making people aware of the possibility of earthquakes. “We need to be prepared and we need to take [earthquakes] seriously. I am a person as well as a scientist, and above all, I’m concerned about the welfare of the people.”