The Sidebar Computer Program, a seismic-shaking intensity meter: users' manual and software description

Open-File Report 2003-202




The SideBar computer program provides a visual display of seismic shaking intensity as recorded at one specific seismograph. This software allows a user to tap into the seismic data recorded on that specific seismograph and to display the overall level of shaking at the single location where that seismograph resides (usually the same place the user is). From this shaking level, SideBar also estimates the potential for damage nearby. SideBar cannot tell you the “Richter magnitude” of the earthquake (see box), only how hard the ground shook locally and this estimate of how much damage is likely in the neighborhood. This combination of local effects is called the “seismic intensity”.

SideBar runs on a standard desktop or laptop PC, and is intended for the media, schools, emergency responders, and any other group hosting a seismograph and who want to know immediately after an earthquake the levels of shaking measured by that instrument. These local values can be used to inform the public and help initiate appropriate local emergency response activities in the minutes between the earthquake and availability of the broader coverage provided by the USGS over the Web, notably by ShakeMap. For example, for instruments installed in schools, the level of shaking and likely damage at the school could immediately be Web broadcast and parents could quickly determine the likely safety of their children—their biggest postearthquake concern. Also, in the event of a Web outage, SideBar may be a continuing primary source of local emergency response information for some additional minutes.

Specifically, SideBar interprets the peak level of acceleration (that is, the force of shaking, as a percentage of the force of gravity) as well as the peak velocity, or highest speed, at which the ground moves. Using these two basic measurements, SideBar computes what is called Instrumental Intensity—a close approximation of the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale, or “MMI” (using the Wald et al., 1999a, relationships between acceleration, velocity, and shaking intensity). Intensity is a measure of local shaking strength and the potential for damage—of how bad the earthquake effects were locally. The intensity level is what SideBar displays most prominently on the PC monitor. Intensity is shown as a large, colored bar that gets taller and changes color up a rainbow from blues toward reds as the shaking level increases. As opposed to earthquake magnitudes, which are reported as decimal values (like “7.6”), intensity is traditionally given as a Roman numeral, with “I” to “X+” assigned to levels of potential damage and perceived shaking strength. For good measure, SideBar shows the actual values of the force of shaking (peak ground acceleration as a percentage of gravity) and the speed of ground motion (peak ground velocity in inches per second, by default, or in centimeters per second, if you wish), both these values as decimal numbers.

SideBar also remembers the most recent earthquakes (for up to one week), and can store as many of these previous earthquakes as the user allows (and as the user’s PC has room for)—typically thousands. SideBar also remembers forever the three largest earthquakes it has seen and all earthquakes over intensity IV so that one never loses particularly important events.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
The Sidebar Computer Program, a seismic-shaking intensity meter: users' manual and software description
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Release 3.0.TO
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Earthquake Science Center
Report: 22 p.; SideBar 3.0TO
Additional Online Files (Y/N):