The Richter Scale Activity Instruction Page

The Richter Scale

Concept: Magnitude is a measure of the energy of an earthquake. The magnitude scale developed by Charles Richter assigns a numerical value for the magnitude of an earthquake based upon a comparison of the maximum amplitude of deflection on a seismogram, as recorded by a standard Wood-Anderson torsion seismometer, and the distance from that seismometer to the earthquake's source. That distance can be found by comparing the arrival times of the first P and S waves to reach the seismometer.


· A browser with Macromedia Flash Player

· Explanation Section for the interactive portion of the activity (below)


In this activity, you will have the chance to find the Richter magnitude of several earthquakes through the use of an online activity that utilizes Macromedia Flash.

Charles Richter is credited with publishing the first method for assigning a numerical value to an earthquake to represent its energy. On the suggestion of Harry O. Wood, he called this numerical value "magnitude"; it is generally given to a single decimal place, and written with a capital M (an abbreviation for magnitude) preceding it. Determining the magnitude of an earthquake by Richter's method requires one to inspect a seismogram and find the difference in time between the P-wave and S-wave arrivals, as well as the maximum amplitude of the trace deflection on that same seismogram. Using these two values, and a conversion table based upon a graph that Richter created from empirical data, it was possible to calculate the Richter magnitude of an earthquake.

To find the Richter magnitude of an earthquake using this online activity, you will also need a seismogram to work with. There are several different earthquakes to work on, each represented by a single seismogram. Clicking on one of these events in the list at the right will bring up that seismogram in the Earthquake Window. You will see three sliders superimposed on this seismogram.

Your job is to drag these sliders into positions that mark three specific points: the arrival of the P wave (the red “P” slider), the arrival of the S wave (the blue “S” slider), and the maximum amplitude shown on that seismogram (the green “A” slider). The computer will automatically calculate the magnitude and display it in pink.  It will also dynamically move the sliders on the nomograph to demonstrate how a nomograph can be used to calculate the magnitude of an event.

Earthquake List

All the earthquakes for which seismograms are available are listed in the Earthquake List.  You must click on one of these to start the activity. When you click on an earthquake, it will pan into the Earthquake Window.  The date of the event will appear above the Earthquake Window.  All of the seismograms have the same horizontal time scale but different vertical scales.

Earthquake Window

The Earthquake Window is where the seismograms get loaded into when you click on one of the earthquakes.  The window starts out blank until you load in an earthquake.  Once an earthquake is loaded in, the proper scale for each earthquake is automatically loaded into the computer. 

There are three arrows that are crucial to the operation of this activity. They are draggable, and with them you will select the P-wave arrival, the S-wave arrival, and the maximum amplitude on the seismogram. These selections give the computer the data it needs to calculate the Richter magnitude for you. The placement of the arrows is discussed below.

P, S & Amplitude Arrows

Three sliders -- a red one labeled "P", a blue one labeled "S", and a green one labeled "A" -- are superimposed atop the seismogram in the earthquake window. The red and blue sliders run vertically, and are to be used to pick the arrivals of the P wave and the S wave on the seismogram. The green arrow runs horizontally, and should be used to select the point of maximum trace deflection -- the amplitude -- on the seismogram.

The arrival of the P wave is marked by the first deflection, reading from left to right (the direction of elapsing time), away from the "resting" position of the seismogram's trace. The arrival of the S wave is generally marked by an obvious increase in the amplitude and/or the wavelength of the oscillations within the waveform. For this activity you will need to mark these arrivals with the appropriate arrows by dragging those arrows to the correct spots on the seismogram.

Choosing the maximum amplitude should be comparatively easy. First, locate the "level" of the trace when it is at rest (on the far left side of the seismogram, before the P-wave arrival). Then find the part of the waveform with the greatest trace deflection -- the most distance between the peak or crest of an oscillation and that initial "quiet" level of the trace.

This job is made easier by the green amplitude marker on the right-hand scale of the nomograph below. This marker will move as you move the amplitude arrow over the seismogram. This marker goes to zero when you align the arrow with the initial level of the trace at rest. The amplitude reading is always positive; it doesn't matter if the arrow lies above or below the initial trace level. Note, however, that while the pixel-per-millimeter scale on every seismogram is linear, the right-hand scale on the nomograph is not; it is logarithmic. Thus, the amount of motion the amplitude marker experiences will not mirror the amount of motion through which you drag the amplitude arrow.

A similar marker will move along the left-hand scale of the nomograph as you adjust the positions of the P and S arrows.


Below the seismogram is the interactive nomograph. A nomograph is a sort of graphical calculator used to find a third value based upon two known quantities. Nomographs generally consist of three scale bars; the two outer scales represent the known quantities and the center scale is used to read off the desired third value. In our case, the outer scales are represented by the S-P time (proportional to the distance from the seismometer to the source) on the left, and the amplitude on the right. The center scale is a linear scale off of which we will read the Richter magnitude.

Sliding along each of the outer scales is a marker. Each of these markers, covered below, moves in response to your manipulation of the P, S & amplitude arrows on the seismogram above.

The computer automatically draws a line connecting the two side markers. The point where this line crosses the center scale is the magnitude as calculated by the nomograph.  The real magnitude that was computer calculated by formula is shown as a marker on the middle section of the nomograph.  It is possible that the intersection of the line and the actual magnitude marker may not perfectly align.  On the bottom of the middle nomograph section is a dynamically changing number that says how far off the nomograph line is from the real magnitude.  This goes to show that the nomograph is not the most accurate method of calculating an earthquake’s magnitude.  It is however, relatively close.

S-P Marker

The left-hand scale of the nomograph represents the difference in time between the P-wave and S-wave arrivals, abbreviated as "S-P", in seconds. A scale showing the equivalent distance in kilometers is given on the same bar. Note that the values on this scale bar do not represent a simple linear function. Instead, the scale represents the original graph determined empirically by Charles Richter from data acquired on earthquakes in southern California during January 1932.

The sliding marker on this scale is red in color. The difference between the two arrows is calculated as an absolute value, so the arrows can be switched, and this scale will still yield the correct value for their difference in time. Note how this sliding marker moves as you move either the P or S arrow.

This marker will be one of the two endpoints of the line drawn to find the Richter magnitude of the earthquake you chose from the Earthquake List.

Amplitude Marker

The green amplitude marker will slide up and down the right-hand scale of the nomograph as you move the amplitude arrow over the seismogram. The amplitude scale is logarithmic, and the amount of motion along it will vary from seismogram to seismogram, as the different seismograms are displayed with differing (linear) vertical scales.

This marker will always move to "zero" (actually, its lowest possible position, since there is no zero on the logarithmic scale as shown) when the amplitude arrow matches the level of the trace at rest. Keep in mind that amplitude cannot be negative, regardless of whether the amplitude arrow falls above or below the center line.

The amplitude marker will anchor the right end of the line drawn by the computer across the nomograph in its calculation of the Richter magnitude.