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The AU seismometer registering an earthquake in Columbia Photo by Rick Polad

AU Aquires Seismometer


The AU seismometer registering an earthquake in Columbia
Photo by Rick Polad


The seismometer in Stephens Hall


By: Stacy Galanis Aurora, Ill.-“Sahyz-mom-i-ter”. That’s how Dictionary.com lists the pronunciation of the word “seismometer”.

Pretty cool word, huh? Bet you haven’t heard that word said around AU too often. That changes now with news that AU has acquired a seismometer and it’s housed right here on campus.

It’s true, and, according to AU Instructor of Earth Science, Rick Polad, it is open for all AU students to view. It is located on the first floor of Stephens Hall, near the hallway that leads to the greenhouse.

So, what specifically is a seismometer and what is its role in the AU community?

According to Polad, “Seismology is the study of earthquakes and earthquake (EQ) waves. A seismometer is the instrument that measures EQ waves.”

“It responds to vibrations and records those vibrations on a seismograph. That data helps seismologists understand subsurface forces and structures that we are otherwise unable to see,” he says. “The hope is that by analyzing that data we may one day be able to predict earthquakes.”

In an email sent to the AU forum, Polad describes just how AU came to acquire this instrument.

“Upon acceptance of our proposal, AU joined a consortium of over 100 U.S. universities and colleges as part of the IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology) project to further education and gather seismological data…Other area schools include NIU, Waubonsee and Northwestern University,” the forums email wrote.

Polad explains how he submitted the proposal to the IRIS to add seismometer in our area.

“A few years ago, I learned that IRIS was soliciting proposals from educational institutions in the upper Midwest to join their worldwide seismic network.  I submitted a proposal which identified how a seismometer at AU would benefit the IRIS network and how AU would use the seismometer for educational purposes. That proposal was accepted. IRIS supplied the seismometer parts and I built it and loaded the software,” he explains.

Though we don’t experience many earthquakes in this area, owning the seismometer is still important to AU and to the communities around us.

“This area has relatively few seismometers as we do not experience many EQs. However, recent EQs in the northern Illinois area have identified new fault lines and interest in our area has increased,” Polad said. “While we will never experience a major EQ, one of the most dangerous fault zones in the world (New Madrid) runs through southern Illinois and along the Mississippi River. Studying fault lines in our area may help understand the New Madrid fault zone.”

Upon first glance, it’s easy to see that the seismometer is not as big as one would imagine but, despite its size, it’s stronger than you may think. Already, the seismometer has recorded a few big earthquakes even while being here a short time on campus.

“Our seismometer can record earthquakes anywhere in the world of greater than 6.5 magnitude and anything within an approximately 200-mile radius of 3.5 or greater,” Polad wrote in his email interview.

“We recorded out first EQ on August 31 as I was in the process of adjusting the seismometer.  That was a 7.6 magnitude quake in the Philippines- 21,686 miles away from Aurora,” he added.

“We recorded the 7.6 quake in Costa Rica on September 5 and the 7.3 quake in Columbia on September 30.”

Two days after the interview with Professor Polad, the AU seismometer recorded an earthquake that occurred near the Gulf of California and Mexico measuring to the size of 6.0.

According to an email sent out by Polad, in a year, the number of 6.0 earthquakes that occur is 134.

Polad stated that annually there are about 15 earthquakes with a 7.6 magnitude. Rare earthquakes with a magnitude of 8 or above occur about once a year. Not only that, but every day we experience about 3,000 small quakes.

However, don’t let this talk of earthquakes scare you, according to Polad, here in Aurora, we won’t be experiencing any major ones any time soon.

“Because of the small fault zones on our area, we will never experience a major quake. The building may shake a little and there may be a crack in the walls but we will not have any major damage,” he wrote. “So I tell my students just to enjoy the science – now they can go look at the seismometer!”

The seismometer is located on the first floor of Stephens Hall. The display on which it sits on was created by AU student Haley Pessina, as a part of her directed study.

Pessina was informed about the seismometer through Polad and was interested to get involved and incorporate it into her directed study.

“My directed study was about earthquakes, primarily the New Madrid earthquakes that occurred in the 1800s,” she wrote over email. “I wrote a research paper on this topic and incorporated some of the information into the seismometer display.”

Though you would assume that this would be of interest only to those with a major in science, Pessina is clear proof that any student with any major can benefit from the opportunity of AU owning a seismometer gives.

“I would like to add that I am not a science major, I am a Criminal Justice major with minors in sociology, pre-law, political science and Spanish. Not too much hard science stuff going on there! This was an opportunity for me to step outside of my comfort zone and be a part of something different, new and exciting,” Pessina added.

Pessina said that creating the display was an enjoyable experience and is honored to have gotten the chance to do so.

“I enjoyed creating the display the most because I got to be creative and I had fun doing it as well as learning some new things. I am honored that [Professor] Polad asked me to join him with this project because I got to expand my horizons just a little bit while being able to give back to my school.”

Polad also agrees that this is a great way for students to learn something new.

“This is a project that everyone – even non-scientists – on campus can be involved with. EQs are something that can affect and interest everyone. In the past I have used data out of a book for my Earth Science classes. To be able to identify and analyze data we have collected at AU makes this a more personal experience,” he wrote.

“Being aware of the world around you is important. Besides the science, this is also a great geography adventure,” Polad added. “I have learned a lot about places that I knew nothing about previously. I’ll go online and learn about the area and the people. One of my new favorite places is Vanuatu, an archipelago in the south Pacific.”

Pessina suggests that all students should visit the seismometer.

“Everyone should check out the display if they get the chance so they can see what is happening as far as earthquakes go in our area,” Pessina said.

Students can view the actual seismometer in Stephens Hall. They can also visit the IRIS website to view the graph of AU’s seismometer, which Polad says is uploaded to the IRIS website every 10 minutes.