The Detective Work of Seismologists: Earthquake or Blast?

Justin Starr
Weston Observatory
Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Boston College

Residents of the city of New Bedford, MA and the surrounding area felt something very strange at 10:52 am on January 9th, 2014. They heard a loud blast and felt a distinct rumble.

A seismic event had occurred.

Weston Observatory scientists quickly determined that the magnitude of this seismic disturbance was 1.9 and that it was located very close to New Bedford. Not very big, but shallow enough to be heard by many people in the area.

While speaking to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), Weston Observatory scientists were informed that there may have been blasting in the New Bedford harbor around the same time as the earthquake and very close to the possible epicenter. So was this a real earthquake? It was up to the scientists to find out.

Several phone calls went out and eventually, Weston Observatory scientists reached the New Bedford harbormaster who put them in touch with the Captain of… the Kraken! The Kraken is a drilling and blasting barge located in New Bedford and is tasked with widening the shipping lanes. As it turns out, the Kraken did not blast until 12:09 pm, over an hour after the earthquake occurred. In fact, the Captain received many phone calls asking if it was they who blasted and caused the shaking… but it was the earthquake!


The two seismograms shown below are from a USArray seismic station in Tiverton, RI. On those seismograms, you can see the Kraken Blast and the earthquake. Notice the big difference in magnitude (the earthquake is an order of magnitude larger).


And notice (below) the well-defined, high amplitude wave labelled “Rg” on the seismogram of the blast. The presence of these “Rg” waves on a seismogram are one of the ways that seismic “detectives” use to identify blasts, and distinguish them from earthquakes.


These “Rg” waves have been studied by seismologists, and are one of the ways that seismologists can distinguish between earthquakes and explosions. See, for example:

Kafka (1990): Rg as a Depth Discriminant for Earthquakes and Explosions

2 thoughts on “The Detective Work of Seismologists: Earthquake or Blast?

  1. Nice detective work, Justin. I thought Rg indicates that it’s shallow depth, which explosions typically are, but some shallow EQs have Rg.

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