Marine Seismologist


Seismologists are geologists who specialize in studying seismic waves in the Earth to understand Earth structure. Earthquakes produce seismic waves. Different materials and different layers of the Earth have properties that cause changes in the way seismic waves travel. Using these differences, seismologists can get a picture of the structure of the Earth, from the core to the surface. They may apply seismology on many scales, from studying the layers of sediment on the seafloor to studying the whole Earth. Seismologists can use seismic waves naturally generated by earthquakes or generate their own through devices such as air guns.

Education Requirements

Estimated Salary

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Graduate degree, PhD in relevant area of geophysics (with some focus in acoustics)

For salary information, please visit the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

Tasks and Duties

  • Study the structure and composition of the earth
  • Study how and where earthquakes occur
  • Examine sediment layers and ocean crust to choose the precise locations for:
    • Offshore oil drilling/gas exploration
    • Coring or drilling to study the history of Earth’s climate and ocean
    • Ocean mining

Knowledge and Skills

Basic skills might include:

  • Design and maintenance of technologies such as seismographs, geophones, hydrophones, and seismometers
  • Research skills (field and/or lab):
    • Seafloor sampling via sediment grabs (scoop out small pieces of sediment) and cores (yield a tube of sediment from a meter or two to tens of meters in length)
    • Subsurface mapping
    • 2D and 3D modeling
    • Able to work alone and/or along side others, in remote locations and sometimes harsh weather, and be willing to be at sea for extended periods of time

May need knowledgeable in:

  • Geology
  • [Applied] mathematics
  • Physics
  • Computer science
  • Acoustics
  • Data acquisition and processing
  • Computer modeling

Basic skills may also include:

  • Research and analytical skills
    • Experimental design and application
    • Field observation and sampling
    • Data organization, processing, and analytics
    • Willingness to work long hours in a laboratory or in the field
    • Some positions may require specialized laboratory skills.
    • Shipboard experience may be useful
  • Written and oral communication skills
    • Preparation of technical reports and presentations
    • Authoring research articles
    • Drafting grant proposals
  • Computer skills
    • Use of computer applications
  • Interpersonal skills
    • Ability to cooperate and collaborate with others
    • Public interactions and public speaking (ability to explain things to diverse audiences)

Connections to Underwater Acoustics

Marine seismologists use sound to map and characterize ocean sediment layers. An airgun is a device used to examine the layers of the seafloor. It is designed to release compressed air, which forms a bubble. The air released by an airgun produces a loud sound, which reflects off the seafloor and can be detected by hydrophones. When a ship tows multiple hydrophones this is called a towed hydrophone array (or streamer). The time it takes the sound to return to the hydrophones can be used to determine the thickness of the seafloor layers and their position (sloped, level, etc). It also gives some information about the composition of the layers. Ships may also tow a tuned airgun array that fires multiple airguns of different sizes at the same time. The direct sound arrivals from the guns add together to produce a much louder sound than the sound from just a single airgun. When a ship tows multiple hydrophone arrays, scientists can also generate three-dimensional images of the earth’s sediment layers. This is known as multi-channel seismics.

Related Careers

  • Geophysicist