Squirrel command line tool tutorial

This tutorial introduces seismological data handling with the squirrel command line tool.

The squirrel command line tool is a front-end to the Squirrel data access infrastructure. In this tutorial, we will download seismic waveforms organize them into a local file structure and investigate various properties of the assembled dataset.

For an introduction on how to use the Squirrel framework in your own code, head on over to Examples: Squirrel powered data access.

Downloading data

The Squirrel framework contains functionality to download seismic waveforms and station metadata from FDSN web services. With an appropriate dataset configuration this can happen in a just-in-time fashion during processing. However, sometimes we may prefer to completely download a dataset in advance. This is one of the tasks for which the squirrel command line tool has been created.

In this part of the tutorial we will download a few days of long period seismic waveforms from the BGR’s FDSN web service. We have selected a time window including the ground motions of the 2021 Mw 8.2 Alaska Earthquake and some of its aftershocks as they were recorded on German broad-band seismometers. Of course, you may choose a different time window, set of stations or FDSN web service, but please be responsible and do not download huge amounts of data just for testing.

Our first step is to create a local Squirrel environment with squirrel init, so that all the downloaded files as well as the database are stored in the current directory (our project directory) under .squirrel/. This will make it easier to clean up when we are done (rm -rf .squirrel/). If we omit this step, the user’s globally shared Squirrel environment (~/.pyrocko/cache/squirrel/) is used.

Create local environment (optional):

$ squirrel init

To use a remote data source we can create a dataset description file and pass this to the --dataset option of the various squirrel subcommands. Examples of such dataset description files are provided by the squirrel template command. Running this command without any further arguments will output a brief list of the available examples. By chance there is one for accessing all LH channels from BGR’s FDSN web service: bgr-gr-lh.dataset. We can save the dataset description file with:

$ squirrel template bgr-gr-lh.dataset -w
squirrel:psq.cli.template - INFO - File written: bgr-gr-lh.dataset.yaml

The dataset description is a nicely commented YAML file and we could modify it to our liking:

--- !squirrel.Dataset

# All file paths given below are treated relative to the location of this
# configuration file. Here we may give a common prefix. For example, if the
# configuration file is in the sub-directory 'PROJECT/config/', set it to '..'
# so that all paths are relative to 'PROJECT/'.
path_prefix: '.'

# Data sources to be added (LocalData, FDSNSource, CatalogSource, ...)
- !squirrel.FDSNSource

  # URL or alias of FDSN site.
  site: bgr

  # Uncomment to let metadata expire in 10 days:
  #expires: 10d

  # Waveforms can be optionally shared with other FDSN client configurations,
  # so that data is not downloaded multiple times. The downside may be that in
  # some cases more data than expected is available (if data was previously
  # downloaded for a different application).
  #shared_waveforms: true

  # FDSN query arguments to make metadata queries.
  # See http://www.fdsn.org/webservices/fdsnws-station-1.1.pdf
  # Time span arguments should not be added here, because they are handled
  # automatically by Squirrel.
    network: 'GR'
    channel: 'LH?'

Expert users can get a non-commented version of the file by adding --format brief to the squirrel template command.

Next, we must update the station meta-information for the time interval of interest. This is done with the squirrel update command. Channel information intersecting with the given time interval will be downloaded (Fig. 1):

$ squirrel update --dataset bgr-gr-lh.dataset.yaml --tmin 2021-07-28 --tmax 2021-08-01
squirrel update:psq.client.fdsn           - INFO     - FDSN "bgr" metadata: querying...
squirrel update:psq.client.fdsn           - INFO     - FDSN "bgr" metadata: new (expires: never)
squirrel update:psq.cli.update            - INFO     - Squirrel stats:
  Number of files:               2
  Total size of known files:     87 kB
  Number of index nuts:          160
  Available content kinds:
    channel: 120 1991-09-01 00:00:00.000 - <none>
    station: 40  <none>                  - <none>
  Available codes:
    [140 more]
  Operators:                     <none>
squirrel update

Figure 1: The squirrel update command ensures that the local channel metatadata is up to date. Channels epochs intersecting with the time span specified with --tmin and --tmax is downloaded or updated.

After fetching the channel information from the FDSN web service, it prints a brief overview of the contents currently available in our data collection.

If we run the update command a second time, Squirrel informs us that cached metadata has been used:

$ squirrel update --dataset bgr-gr-lh.dataset.yaml --tmin 2021-07-28 --tmax 2021-08-01
squirrel update:psq.client.fdsn           - INFO     - FDSN "bgr" metadata: using cached (expires: never)

Only if we call the update command with a yet unknown time span, it will make new queries. It is also possible to set an expiration date for metadata from this data-source in the dataset configuration (expires).

By default, only channel information is made available with squirrel update. If we later need the instrument response information of the seismic stations of the data selection, we can add the --responses option to squirrel update (Fig. 2):

$ squirrel update --responses --dataset bgr-gr-lh.dataset.yaml --tmin 2021-07-28 --tmax 2021-08-01
  Available content kinds:
    channel:  120 1991-09-01 00:00:00.000 - <none>
    response: 150 1991-01-01 00:00:00.000 - <none>
    station:  40  <none>                  - <none>
squirrel update --responses

Figure 2: With the --responses option also instrument response information is downloaded with squirrel update.

So now we also have response information containing details about how the seismometers convert physical ground motion into measurement records.

Next we must give permission to Squirrel to download data given certain constraints. Squirrel will only download waveform data when it has a so-called promise for a given time span and channel. These promises must be explicitly created with the --promises option of squirrel update. We are only interested in vertical component seismograms at this point, so we restrict promise creation to channels ending in ‘Z’ (Fig. 3):

$ squirrel update --promises --dataset bgr-gr-lh.dataset.yaml --tmin 2021-07-28 --tmax 2021-08-01 --codes '*.*.*.??Z'
  Available content kinds:
    channel:          120 1991-09-01 00:00:00.000 - <none>
    station:          40  <none>                  - <none>
    waveform_promise: 40  2021-07-28 00:00:00.000 - 2021-08-01 00:00:00.000
squirrel update --promises

Figure 3: With the --promises option of squirrel update selected time intervals on selected channels are marked as downloadable. The promises act as placeholders for the real waveforms which are not yet available.

Why do we need a concept involving “promises” you may ask. Well, besides giving us a tight leash on what Squirrel will eventually download, it solves a bookkeeping problem: normally, when resolving a promise and if the download succeeds, the promise is simply removed. When it fails because of a temporary problem (e.g. connectivity), it is kept so that the download can be tried again later. If it however fails permanently, maybe because the waveform is not available on the server, the promise is deleted, so that we do not repeatedly query the server for non-existent data. Finally, if we want to freeze the dataset, we can just remove all remaining promises and no further download attempts will be made. We think that these benefits outweigh the conceptual complexity added with the promises.

After setting up the promises, to actually download the waveforms, we can now use the squirrel summon command (Fig. 4):

$ squirrel summon --dataset bgr-gr-lh.dataset.yaml --tmin 2021-07-28 --tmax 2021-08-01
squirrel summon

Figure 4: The with the squirrel summon command, matching promises are resolved by downloading the actual waveforms if possible. On success, the placeholder promises are removed.

Finally, let’s have a look at the waveforms. We can use an experimental Squirrel-powered version of the Snuffler application to interactively explore the dataset (Fig. 5):

$ squirrel snuffler --dataset bgr-gr-lh.dataset.yaml
output of squirrel_tutorial1.png

Figure 5: Screenshot from squirrel snuffler showing the available waveforms after successfully summoning the dataset.

The downloaded waveforms include the signals from an Mw 8.2 earthquake which occurred on 2021-07-29 at 06:15 UTC (Fig. 6).

output of squirrel_tutorial2.png

Figure 6: Screenshot from squirrel snuffler after zooming in on the waveforms from the Mw 8.2 Alaska earthquake. The earthquake was located at a depth of 28 km and 104 km SE of Perryville, Alaska in the Aleutian megathrust. It was followed by some smaller aftershocks. The authorities issued a Tsunami warning but only a small Tsunami of 30 cm was observed and the warning was lifted shortly after.

Waveforms are always downloaded in blocks of reasonable size, therefore the downloaded time frame may be slightly larger than the requested time span. The downloaded dataset can be incrementally extended by running squirrel update and squirrel summon multiple times. Only missing data blocks are downloaded when running squirrel summon. Other waveforms available through the current Squirrel data collection are also considered to avoid unnecessary downloads.

Dataset conversion

So far the waveforms have been downloaded into a special cache directory maintained by Squirrel. Using the data from there is useful if we will later want to extend the dataset. However, sometimes we want to have full control and so want to create our own waveform archive in a portable form.

To copy the data downloaded in the previous section into a handy directory structure, we can use the squirrel jackseis command. With its --out-sds-path a standard SDS data directory with day-files in MSEED format is created:

$ squirrel jackseis --dataset bgr-gr-lh.dataset.yaml --out-sds-path data/sds
$ tree data/   # Use `ls`, if `tree` is not installed.
└── sds
    └── 2021
        └── GR
            ├── BFO
            │   └── LHZ.D
            │       ├── GR.BFO..LHZ.D.2021.208
            │       ├── GR.BFO..LHZ.D.2021.209
            │       ├── GR.BFO..LHZ.D.2021.210
            │       ├── GR.BFO..LHZ.D.2021.211
            │       ├── GR.BFO..LHZ.D.2021.212
            │       └── GR.BFO..LHZ.D.2021.213
            ├── ...

Station metadata is exported when adding the --out-meta-path option to squirrel jackseis. By default, this exports the metadata in StationXML format to the given file path:

$ squirrel jackseis --dataset bgr-gr-lh.dataset.yaml --out-meta-path meta/stations.xml

We will use the dataset consisting of the waveforms in data/sds and the station meta-data in meta/stations.xml as a “local dataset” in the following sections.

Local datasets

To inspect some local data holdings, we can use the Snuffler application by calling squirrel snuffler. Files and directories given to the --add option are made available. File formats are usually autodetected and directories are recursively scanned for any readable files.

To look at the dataset that we have created in the previous section of the tutorial, use:

$ squirrel snuffler --add data/sds meta/stations.xml

The --add option is part of a group of standardized options to configure the run-time data collection of Squirrel based programs. If we find ourselves repeatedly specifying the same file paths over and over again, it may be a good idea to tie them together in a dataset description file. An example of such a file for local datasets can be obtained with squirrel template local.dataset. For a nicely organized project directory, we may want to place the dataset description file into a subdirectory config:

$ mkdir config
$ squirrel template local.dataset > config/alaska.dataset.yaml
$ nano config/alaska.dataset.yaml   # or use your favourite text editor

Let’s modify the file so that our precious waveforms and metadata are found:

--- !squirrel.Dataset

# All file paths given below are treated relative to the location of this
# configuration file. Here we may give a common prefix. For example, if the
# configuration file is in the sub-directory 'PROJECT/config/', set it to '..'
# so that all paths are relative to 'PROJECT/'.
path_prefix: '..'

# Data sources to be added (LocalData, FDSNSource, CatalogSource, ...)
- !squirrel.LocalData  # This data source is for local files.

  # These paths are scanned for waveforms, stations, events.
  - 'data/sds'
  - 'meta/stations.xml'

  # Select file format or 'detect' for autodetection.
  format: 'detect'

The paths in the dataset description file are relative to the location of this file itself. The value of path_prefix is prepended to all paths. Because alaska.dataset.yaml is in the projects subdirectory config, we have set path_prefix to '..'. With this, the rest of the paths can be given relative to the project directory root.

Now we can look at our waveforms by just passing the dataset description file to squirrel snuffler:

$ squirrel snuffler --dataset config/alaska.dataset.yaml

With an appropriate configuration of the dataset, local and remote data sources can be combined. It is also possible to add multiple datasets to a Squirrel program or to combine --dataset and --add. Like this, the runtime data collection can be flexibly composed at program startup. Squirrel maintains indexes of known files, so that repeated program startups are extremely efficient. This approach works well with datasets of up to about 100k - 1M files. For larger data archives, it is possible to create persistent selections, which we will cover later.

Dataset inspection and querying

In this part of the tutorial, we will explore some more squirrel subcommands useful when checking data availability or to hunt down data problems.

Commands like squirrel snuffler will always first index any unknown files. For large data archives, this can take quite some time. To perform the indexing in advance use the squirrel scan subcommand:

$ squirrel scan --dataset config/alaska.dataset.yaml

To obtain a visual representation of the data availability over time on the terminal use squirrel coverage:

$ squirrel coverage --dataset config/alaska.dataset.yaml

Use --tmin and --tmax to narrow down the displayed time span.

To get all data codes identifying the various stations/channels available in a data collection, run:

$ squirrel codes --dataset config/alaska.dataset.yaml

The returned codes (aka channel IDs / stream IDs / NSLC codes) have the form NET.STA.LOC.CHA.EXTRA, where the first four follow the FDSN conventions and the optional EXTRA code is for derived data streams within the Squirrel framework.

Several squirrel subcommands allow querying for channels using patterns given to the --codes option. For example squirrel nuts lists index entries. Nuts are the smallest units of information in the Squirrel framework. To obtain an inventory listing of everything related to the vertical component of station BFO, we may run:

$ squirrel nuts --dataset config/alaska.dataset.yaml --codes '*.BFO.*.??Z'

Or, to find out what files in our collection contain information about station BFO, run:

$ squirrel files --dataset config/alaska.dataset.yaml --codes '*.BFO.*.*'

Similarly, it is possible to query by time span (--tmin, --tmax) or content kind (--kind), ie. waveform, channel, response, etc.

Conceptually, we should remember that the collection options build up a data collection and the query options are used to query information from that collection. The query options never change the collection itself.

Earthquake catalogs

Squirrel can also be used to retrieve and incrementally update earthquake catalog information from a few selected online catalogs.

Online catalogs can be added to the sources in a dataset description. In this example we will use events with a magnitude above 7.0 from the GEOFON earthquake catalog:

--- !squirrel.Dataset
path_prefix: '..'
- !squirrel.LocalData  # This data source is for local files.
  - 'data/sds'
  - 'meta/stations.xml'

- !squirrel.CatalogSource
  catalog: geofon
    magmin: 7.0

To make sure that the local excerpt of the catalog is up to date for a given time span, we must call squirrel update with the dataset description and the desired time span:

$ squirrel update --dataset config/alaska.dataset.yaml --tmin 2021-07-28 --tmax 2021-08-01

Again, as we have seen with waveforms and station metadata, Squirrel is lazy and tries to avoid duplicate downloads of event information. It uses the locally cached information when possible. To make our dataset aware of updates in the upstream catalog, we can to set an expiration time for the cached information (expires) or a time period for which new data is considered unreliable (anxious).

Large datasets and persistent selections

So far, the runtime data selection used in each squirrel command has been composed at each startup. For example when running squirrel snuffler --add data/sds meta/stations.xml, a temporary database is created with all the content given to --add. This temporary database is deleted again when squirrel snuffler exits. The advantage of this approach is that we can very flexibly combine what data should be available in each processing step. The disadvantage is that the creation of the temporary database takes some time and leads to slow program startup for large datasets. To use a persistent instead of a temporary database, use the --persistent option. This option takes the name of the persistent selection which will be created or used as an argument. For example, to create a persistent selection named alaska, and add all files in data/sds, run:

$ squirrel snuffler --persistent alaska --add data/sds

To look at the newly created selection:

$ squirrel snuffler --persistent alaska

We can also add further data to the selection:

$ squirrel snuffler --persistent alaska --add meta/stations.xml

It is possible to create multiple persistent selections but each one adds some internal bookkeeping overhead which can impact the overall performance of the database.

Existing persistent selections can be listed:

$ squirrel persistent list

To remove again the persistent selection alaska:

$ squirrel persistent delete alaska

Persistent selections trade flexibility against program startup time.


The Squirrel framework provides a unified interface to query and access seismic waveforms, station meta-data and event information from local file collections and remote data sources. For prompt responses, a database setup is used under the hood. To speed up assemblage of ad-hoc data selections, files are indexed on first use and the extracted meta-data is remembered for subsequent accesses.

The squirrel tool provides some of the features of the Squirrel framework on the command line. In this tutorial, we have seen how we can use it to perform some every day seismological tasks such as downloading data from FDSN web services, dataset conversion and inspection.

For an introduction on how to use the Squirrel framework in your own code, see Tutorial: writing a Squirrel based tool to calculate hourly RMS values.