State of the Planet

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Measuring Earthquakes in Western New York

West Valley students Mike Grigsby (left) and Alex Domon view seismic data (Courtesy NYSERDA)

Each year, dozens of small, mostly harmless earthquakes quakes rattle the northeastern United States and southern Canada, and one quite active area runs along the shores of lakes Erie and Ontario, in western New York. In order to learn more about what generates these, and the possible threat of something bigger, scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have installed a new seismometer at the West Valley Central School, southeast of Buffalo.  Officially announced on Oct. 15, it is the latest addition to the Lamont Cooperative Seismic Network, which monitors earthquakes throughout the region. The station not only sends data to the scientific community, but gives hands-on experience to West Valley students, who have been given computer hardware and software t0 analyze  signals from the instrument.

Funded with a $25,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the station was installed by Lamont seismologist Won-Young Kim, head of the network. There are now 28 stations including this one, from New York’s Central Park to near the Canadian border. Many are run in cooperation with schools, universities, museums and other organizations. Signals are sent in real time to Lamont, and disseminated to scientists worldwide via the internet.

As reported in the local Springville Journal,  the station sits on an outcrop of bedrock in a small concrete bunker in the woods near the school, and is connected to a computer monitor a short walk away in the classroom of earth-science teacher Ryan Keem. Studies of its signals will be integrated into the curriculum, said Keem. The most recent local quake was on August 22, about 14 miles north of the school–a magnitude 2, too small to be felt on the surface, but accurately located with the help of the instrument, already then in operation. The instrument is sensitive enough to pick up nearby footsteps, strong winds and railroad trains. Filtering these out and spotting the earthquakes is part of the seismologist’s job–and something some students may be able to pick up now, right in their own backyard.


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