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Inter Tropical Convergence Zone

Understanding the Monitoring and Reporting of Earthquakes

Lloyd Cripe 04/01/2010


Earthquakes are unnerving to say the least. We expect the earth to be solid. We stand on it and build our houses on it. We want it to be dependable. We foster the illusion of solidity. This however is just a convenient illusion that we get-away-with most of the time. The earth is actually quite dynamic and constantly moving. The surface of the earth is really a collection of floating plates that move around bumping into and under each other. In other words, Terra Firma is not so Firma!

Around the world thousands of earthquakes occur daily. Most are undetectable to us and have no practical consequences. They are only detectable with sensitive seismic instruments. When the quakes become strong enough and are close by, they get our instant attention and trigger big gobs of anxiety. After all, the earth is suppose to be solid. Isn't it? We know from history and experience that very strong earthquakes are very dangerous threats to our habitations and lives. I don't know about you, but when the earth starts to quake, I start to shake!

It helps to know that earthquakes are monitored around the world through large networks of seismic instruments and the information quickly made available to us via the internet. When a noticeable earthquake occurs (especially greater than 4.5 magnitude) it is possible to go online and get information about it in short order. I find this comforting and it makes me feel a bit more in control (another illusion but it works). In this brief discussion, I want to tell you about the monitoring system, how to use it and how you can help by reporting your earthquake experience.


The United States is a leader in earthquake monitoring. There are other seismographic networks in the world such as the French GEOSCOP network and the German (GEOFON) network, but none are as comprehensive as the USGS (United States Geological Survey) through their Earthquake Hazards Program. The annual 2010 budget for the USGS is expected to be over 1.1 billion with 57 million funneled to the Earthquake Hazards program. You might as well take advantage of this service and get some of the benefits from your hard earned tax dollars. For starters, you can learn a lot about earthquakes at their education pages. There is no better cure for fear than accurate knowledge.

The USGS Earthquake Hazards Program works with several networking systems to monitor and report earthquakes. One of these networks is the ANNS (Advanced National Seismic System). The ANNS has a backbone network of a 100 stations that coordinate monitoring the entire United States. This is probably the most extensive monitoring system of any single country in the world. The USGS Earthquake Hazards Program also works with the GSN (Global Seismographic Network) which is a worldwide network of over 150 countries monitoring earthquakes with up-to-date digital equipment. The USGS Earthquake Hazards Program also works with IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology) a consortium of over 100 Untied States universities contributing to research, education and monitoring of earthquake hazards. Seismographic data is collected from all over the world and fed into these elaborate networks to monitor earthquake activity and research. Stations are registered with the IRSS (International Registry of Seismograph Stations).

To learn more about what happens in these network systems when an earthquake is detected read this interesting brief description of the process at the Earthquake Hazards FAQ's. [ top ]

Internet Posting

This complex system system allows information about the latest earthquakes to be posted quite rapidly on the internet. How quickly depends on a number of factors, but it basically works like this: When an earthquake of 4.5 magnitude or higher occurs (various scales are used), it is picked up on many seismographs around the world which may include seismographs in the earthquakes' actual country. An earthquake of this magnitude can be detected by seismographs all over the world. According to the USGS FAQ's all the stations get the earthquake information about the same time. How fast this information gets processed and disseminated depends on the size and location of the earthquake. For example, an earthquake in California gets processed quickly (about 2.5 minutes). California has one of the most developed seismology systems. An earthquake in the U.S. but outside of California gets processed in about 8 minutes. An earthquake outside of the U.S. in other parts of the world, especially where there are few to no stations, may take much longer for posting. The USGS web page provides information regarding the latest earthquakes.

Panama has a variety of seismographs. Some of the stations are associated with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Station at Isla Barro Colorado, others with the University of Panama Institute of Geosciences and others are privately owned and operated. Those registered with IRSS can be found at this link. Data from these stations may or may not be fed into the GSN or other networks depending on their network associations.

When you feel an earthquake here in the District of Boquete, if it is greater than a magnitude of 5.0, information about it will eventually appear within 30 minutes at the USGS Earthquake web site. All you have to do is go to their web page and see if it has been posted. I sometimes check the IRIS Seismic Monitor. I used to check the University of Panama Institute of Geosciences report but they are currently down and I don't know when they will be up.

You can receive a free email notification of earthquakes from the USGS. You request notification can be specific to your country or it can cover the world in general. Because of my general interest in earthquakes, I personally get notifications of significant earthquakes around the world. The notifications are prompt. [ top ]

Reporting Your Earthquake Experience

All of these networks depend upon reports from people like ourselves that directly experience the earthquake. This helps to evaluate earthquake location, the surrounding area and effects. A formal system of classifying earthquake experience called the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale was developed in the early 1900's and later modified is still used for these reports. You can report earthquake experiences at the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program web pages at the "Did you feel it?" links.

Because we live so near a potentially active volcano (Volcan Baru) some of the local earthquake activity we feel is not of a magnitude that it is processed by the larger networks, but is important to understanding the behavior of the volcano. There is a network of seismographs located in Chiriqui around the volcano that measure this seismic activity. Ongoing research monitors, collect and process the data from these seismographs. This Chiriqui system needs our reports of the earthquake experience. It helps them to better understand where the effects of the quakes are occurring and their intensity. You can help by submitting a simple earthquake report. It doesn't take long, but it helps a lot. Be sure and fill-out the form carefully before submitting. It is essential that you include your GPS coordinates. You can easily find your coordinates wtih Google Earth or a handheld GPS. [ top ]


In summary, the earth is dynamic with thousands of earthquakes occurring daily. Earthquakes are scary and can be devastating natural disasters. Elaborate seismic systems have been created to monitor, detect and report earthquake activity. Earthquakes over 4.5 magnitude are quickly processed and posted on the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program web site to keep us informed. Within minutes we can know when and where earthquakes have occurred. We can help by reporting our earthquake experiences. [ top ]

Quick Guidelines for Monitoring and Reporting Earthquakes

After experiencing an earthquake in the District of Boquete and ensuring your safety, follow these steps to monitor the earthquake and report your experience:

Check the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program current earthquake web page for latest information
Help by submitting your own report of the earthquake to us. We will pass it on to the right persons.

When you have completed all of this, sit down alone or with friends sipping a rum drink of your choice and listen to Jerry Lee Lewis singing "Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On." Be grateful the planet has held together and you are still around to enjoy Paradise.

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