The Eastern United States, let alone New York City, may not be prone to earthquakes, but that doesn’t mean we completely forgo seismology on the East Coast. Two of New York’s best universities — Fordham and Columbia — have been abuzz with activity as seismologists labor to chart the data and study the effects of Tuesday’s 5.8 earthquake that shook the city. Fordham actually houses New York State’s oldest seismic station, with instruments dating back to the early 1900s. Housed in an underground structure made from Gothic stone, the station, shown above, is a bit of a relic in itself.
Fordham physics professor Benjamin C. Crooker supervises the university’s William Spain Seismic Observatory, which was built in 1923. In an interview with the New York Times, Crooker could barely contain his excitement about the recent earthquake. “This was more motion than I’ve seen in the 16 years I’ve been doing this,” he said.
The station’s cylindrical steel seismometer confirmed that the Big Apple had experienced a 5.8 quake about nine seconds after 1:52 p.m. on August 23. The device is so sensitive that it can detect an earthquake of a 5.8 magnitude anywhere it occurs, but if that same strength quake were to hit New York City directly, the seismometer would likely be destroyed. According to legend, the observatory’s older devices are so sensitive that the university used to use horses to cut the grass above the station rather than machinery.
Dr. Meredith Nettles, a seismologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said that while we rarely feel earthquakes in NYC, small quakes are often recorded by the seismic centers. In fact, earlier on Tuesday, a 2.2 earthquake was recorded just 15 miles outside of Albany. Any tremor recorded, especially a larger one like the 5.8, gives scientists important insight into the geology and underground layout beneath our city.
“While the quake took 1.2 seconds to travel the 6.2 miles between Central Park and Fordham, an additional 1.29 seconds passed during the 5.6-mile journey from Fordham to Palisades,” write the New York Times. “Even subtle differences in travel time, Dr. Nettles said, can speak to the nature of rock or sediment beneath the surface.”
While Tuesday’s quake will definitely be remembered by New Yorkers, it was largely just a fleeting interruption to our daily lives. But it was most definitely a necessary reminder that just because we’re not on the San Andreas Fault, doesn’t mean we’re immune to earthquakes. Perhaps that little shake was just what we needed to make the need for stronger buildings and safer nuclear plants become more real.