Physics Department Project Monitors Earthquake Activity


A hole dug deep into the ground on the Saint Mary's College campus is helping scientists and government officials detect and record seismic activity.

The data obtained at Saint Mary's, including information about the magnitude 4.2 quake centered in Lafayette on March 1, is studied at the Berkeley Seismological Lab. The college is part of a consortium of government and scientific groups, including the U.S. Geological Survey, that monitor seismic activity in hopes of developing an early warning system to alert Bay Area residents of an imminent earthquake.

"We consider it a town-and-gown kind of project," said Ron Olowin, chair of the Saint Mary's Physics and Astronomy Department. "We want to be good citizens and provide civic information."

The 500 foot-deep seismic borehole, located in the corner of the Moore Hall parking lot, is filled with equipment to monitor seismic activity including accelerometers that measure motion and a satellite-based global positioning system.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy also collects climate information from a meteorology tower that Olowin constructed at the campus Observatory. Findings on local earthquakes and weather are displayed on a video wall at the EarthWatch Station located on the first floor of Galileo Hall. The information is also linked to the NBC-KNTV website. (

"The information can be useful in a variety of ways," Olowin said. "It can be used for people who want to know what it's going to be like when they go camping for the weekend, or we can use it to analyze the seismic impact of an earthquake."

Plans are also underway for a January Term course enabling students to closely study seismic activity.

The March 1 temblor registered quickly on the equipment because it was centered just a few miles from the campus, likely near the northern segment of the Hayward fault.

"We register P-waves and S-waves," Olowin explained. "P-waves generally move about twice as fast as S-waves do, so when an earthquake is centered farther away, we detect them farther apart, but with this earthquake they arrived at almost the same time."

Saint Mary's, UC Berkeley, CalTrans, KNTV News and the National Science Foundation all help fund the project. With earthquakes an ongoing concern, Saint Mary's will continue to team with UC Berkeley and the USGS to study seismic activity in the area.

"I think we have a lot of opportunities to increase and expand the project," Olowin said. "We've made real progress."