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National Earthquake Study Comes to Illinois

Student researchers scout farmland for future earthquake-measuring stations

July 6, 2010 | by Erin Spain
Video produced by Erin White

EVANSTON, Ill. ---Two Northwestern University students on a summer-long road trip across northern and central Illinois are about to start knocking on farmers' and landowners' doors in their search for secluded places to build seismic stations.

Their summer adventures are part of EarthScope, a major National Science Foundation program to measure earthquakes and study the structure and evolution of the North American continent by installing hundreds of seismometers across the United States. The study also will produce CAT scan-like images of the structures beneath the earth's crust.

"There are small earthquakes in Illinois that we want to record, but the stations that will be built are sensitive enough to record earthquakes from around the world," said Emily Wolin, a Ph.D. candidate in Earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern University's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Wolin and Joseph Walkowicz, an undergraduate in Northwestern's Earth and planetary sciences department, are heading up the Illinois leg of EarthScope.

Suzan van der Lee, an observational and computational seismologist and associate professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern, is advising the student researchers.

The students are scouting land for quiet, secluded spaces far from railroads and rivers, which can disrupt seismometers. After getting a landowner's approval, they will measure and photograph the land, mark it with a stake, capture its GPS location, make certain a strong cell phone signal is present and write up their findings.

Data from the earthquake-measuring stations already has been collected in the western half of the United States. The goal is to collect data from seismic stations across all of North America by 2013. The Northwestern student researchers plan to identify 21 sites in Illinois by Aug. 31.

Next year seismic monitors will be buried two and a half yards below the earth in the selected locations and remain underground for two years. The monitors will feed earthquake and movement data via cell phone link to EarthScope's collection center in San Diego, after which the data will be available to everyone through a seismic data distribution center in Seattle.

Topics: Research