Seismic refraction survey

Jouni Lerssi, Geological Survey of Finland, PO Box 1237, 70211 Kuopio, Finland;


  • First major geophysical method applied to subsurface investigation of relatively deep oil-bearing geologic structures.
  • No longer the primary method in oil exploration, but has found use for near-surface, high-resolution subsurface investigation.
  • Common applications for civil engineering and environmental studies include depth-to-bedrock and groundwater investigations; also used for shallow fault and stratigraphic studies.
  • Main objective is to measure the time of the “first break”, that is, the time when a given geophone first moves in response to a seismic energy source. Simply stated, since time and relative distances of sources and geophones are known, the velocity of the subsurface can be calculated.

The seismic refraction method, due to its versatility, is one of the most commonly used geophysical methods in engineering, mining, groundwater exploration and environmental site investigations. Based on favourable density contrasts that generally exist between geological materials, the refraction method is utilised to provide detailed information on the distribution and thicknesses of subsurface layers with characteristic seismic velocities. Overburden and basement rocks may be classified to some degree to discriminate for example, glacial tills from gravels or highly fractured rock from competent rock. The technique is widely used for rippability assessment of bedrock.

Field operations involve laying out a seismic cable with several geophone detectors (usually 12 or 24), at the takeout points on the cable. In some situations, such as in saturated sediments, shear wave information is more diagnostic of layer information than compressional wave. In this case a shear wave source and shear wave geophones are employed. Overwater, pressure-sensitive hydrophone receivers are substituted for the geophones. Geophone or hydrophone spacing is strongly dependent on the depth of search and the desired resolution for a given survey. A pattern of shotpoints is then executed within and off the ends of the cable and the seismic wave arrivals for each geophone are recorded in the seismograph. The key piece of recorded information is the time of the first arrival. This arrival is the direct wave, or more commonly, the refracted wave which occurs when seismic energy propagates along a geological interface having a sufficiently great velocity contrast. This contrast must consist of a higher velocity zone underlying a lower velocity zone, fortunately the most common geological condition.

The energy source may be sledge hammer blows in extremely shallow search surveys (less that 10 metres), a shotgun source when overburden conditions allow, or explosives where depth and/or energy attenuation is a deciding factor. The maximum depth of exploration is limited by space requirements for long cable layout and favourable shooting conditions for explosive charges. In general, a seismic cable three times the expected depth of exploration is required to ensure sufficient bedrock or basal layer arrival information to provide depths independently beneath each geophone location.

Interpretation of the seismic data involves resolving the number of velocity layers present, the velocity of each layer, and the traveltime taken to travel from a given refractor up to the ground surface. This time is then multiplied by the velocity of each overburden layer to obtain the thickness of each layer at that point. The analysis of the refraction data is assisted by the use of an integrated suite of programs. As well, inversion programs such as the Optim analysis program are used.

In some circumstances companion surveys may be carried out to provide correlative information. Transient electromagnetic soundings, resistivity soundings, or multielectrode resistivity surveys provide a means of assessing additional layering information. Frequently, the marine seismic refraction method is a companion survey to marine seismic reflection profiling surveys.

Appropriate applications

The most common application of the seismic refraction technique is to resolve variability in the depth to the top of a refractor (e.g. bedrock) and the seismic velocity within it. However, the method can also be used to determine rippability of materials for excavation, the degree of weathering within the top of bedrock, rock strength, thickness of saturated aquifers, location of weathered fault zones, etc.

  • Stratigraphic mapping
  • Estimation of depth to bedrock
  • Estimation of depth to water table
  • Calculate engineering properties of the overburden
  • Predicting the rippability of specific rock types
  • Locating sinkholes
  • Landfill investigations
  • Geotechnical investigations
  • Calculate material elastic constants (e.g., shear modulus, Poission’s ratio) from the shear and compressional velocity data



  • Fast field operation, can cover large survey areas inexpensively and rapidly
  • Typically requires less time and expense than comparable seismic reflection methods or drilling
  • Estimate material properties from acquired seismic velocity data
  • Greater vertical resolution than electrical, magnetic, or gravity methods
  • Limited intrusive activity and is non-destructive


  • Sometimes cumbersome field procedures
  • Noise sensitive (wind, waves, walking, vehicles, machinery)
  • Limited sensitivity to vertical structures
  • Use of explosives need extra licenses to use

Design requirements

Fig. 1. Descriptive picture of seismic refraction measurement and basic “interpretation” (© Riitta Turunen, GTK).


Reynolds, J.M. 2011. An Introduction to Applied and Environmental Geophysics. John Wiley & So n s Ltd, Chichester, 2nd ed.,712 pp.

David M. Nielsen, ed., 2006: Practical handbook of environmental site characterization and ground-water monitoring, second edition, CRC Press, pp. 249-295.