Expanding earthquake education in the northeast

KENT–Won-Young Kim helped shovel out a ditch for the wiring that led to a plain-looking wooden box encased in cement, set in the bedrock of a hillside framing the Kent School, a private high school tucked in picturesque northwest Connecticut.

“Using this,” he said, pointing to the box, “we’ll be able to pick up activity from earthquakes happening as far away as Japan.”


Seismometer at the Kent School

Kim, a senior research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and graduate advisor, studies earthquake activity in the northeastern United States, a somewhat quiet phenomenon that gained attention when a strong magnitude 5.8 earthquake shook Virginia in August and rang up through the northeast. Kim helped install the new seismograph at the Kent School this week.

He picked up the seismometer, the heavy metallic cylinder inside the box, used to measure the size and pinpoint the location of earthquakes all across the globe.

“In the eastern United States we have tiny earthquakes all the time, but we don’t always understand exactly where,” he said. “We need to better know where and how.”

Kim directs the Lamont-Doherty Cooperative Seismograph Network (LCSN), a project that monitors earthquake activity in the northeast through more than 40 stations in seven states. The new Kent monitoring station joins three other in Connecticut, located at the University of Connecticut Storrs campus, Yale University in New Haven and the Westport Astronomical Society. LCSN also works with a larger national program, called the Advanced National Seismic System.

The Kent seismograph, which Kim proposed to the school in August 2010, will measure seismic activity and project the readings onto a website that Kent School students and teachers will study in various math, geology, physics and earth science classes.

“It can be of use to the students and it works as outreach into the field of seismology,” said Matthew Austin, a math teacher at the Kent School who introduced Kim to school officials. Austin said he first got involved with the project when he noticed Kim examining exposed surfaces of rock around the school, scouting for a new seismograph location. Austin said he introduced himself to Kim, and soon found himself helping with a proposal for a new seismograph.

Won-Young Kim

Won-Young Kim of Columbia University next to his latest project

“It’s going to be a two-way street,” Austin said. “Our teachers can help with basic site maintenance and their equipment will help show the kids how a seismograph works and how to interpret the data.”

Kim explained that seismographs need a sturdy, quiet and somewhat undeveloped area, preferably set in bedrock, to record the most accurate reading possible. He saw the hillside bordering the Kent School as the perfect spot. The seismograph can read seismic activity with microsecond, even millisecond accuracy in optimal conditions.

Kim said students can also use the equipment to monitor weather patterns and happenings in the field of “forensic seismology.” For example, if a gas main exploded anywhere in the northeast, the seismometer would pick up the activity. Students can then trace back what happened, what time and where. The seismometer can also detect rainfall, snowfall and wind.

Maintaining and building a network of seismographs isn’t cheap, but the new Kent seismograph comes at little cost to Kim or the Kent School. Each seismograph costs about $30,000, Kim said, but LCSN received about $1.25 million in funding through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, an economic stimulus package aimed at relieving programs impacted by the recession, such as educational programs.

Kim explained how monitoring seismic activity in the northeast proves crucial to understanding regional seismology. He said unlike the west coast, where more fault lines and movement make the area prone to earthquakes, fault lines in the northeast prove fewer and older. Northeast earthquakes mostly occur in the middle of plates instead of at fault lines, and small ones can happen 40 to 50 times per year.

Kim said he believes a big earthquake could hit the northeast, especially after Virginia saw a 5.8 magnitude quake.

“I never expected to see a 5.8 quake there,” he said. “For the last 200 years, we haven’t didn’t have anything that big happen. So when people ask me if we can have one that big, I say anything is possible.”