Fordham Monitors World’s Seismic Activity

University Says it is Prepared For Unlikely Earthquakes


Published February 18, 2010

Just three weeks after an earthquake rocked Haiti, which sits on an active fault line, residents of Belvidere, Il. felt the ground shake in their own quake. Earthquakes can happen anywhere, according to Benjamin Crooker, associate professor of physics and director of the William Spain Seismic Observatory located on the Fordham College Rose Hill (FCRH) campus.

But whether they destroy cities or make picture frames shake depends on what’s going on underground. “The Haiti earthquake happened on a major fault,” said Crooker, referring to the space between two continental plates. “It’s the kind of place you expect to have a lot of earthquakes.”

Can it happen here?  It depends on what “here” means.  Illinois, situated in the Midwest, is hundreds of miles away from any active fault line in any direction, while California has had 12 major earthquakes since 1857, according to the California Department of Conservation, who designates any earthquake of a magnitude seven or greater as “major.” Earthquakes are classified by their magnitudes, of which the highest possible is 10. The higher the number, the stronger the quake. At a magnitude three earthquake, people can feel it. At a magnitude four, small items, like vases, will fall. At a magnitude five, a structure’s walls will crack, Crooker said.

What about New York?  Can a big one happen here?  The odds are against it.  The biggest quake in recent years here was in 2002, when a magnitude two earthquake hit New York City. It was caused by an “ancient” (meaning relatively inactive) fault, Cameron’s Fault, which runs through 125th street, said Crooker.

But energy is rarely released from Cameron’s Fault in large enough bursts for people to notice. “[It] was very shallow, so people could hear it, even though it was small…awareness depends on how close you are to the epicenter,” Crooker said.

A magnitude seven earthquake like the one in Haiti is unlikely to occur in New York, although, Crooker said, it could happen.

“Haiti is on an active fault, so we can make broad, general predictions. We can say things like… there is a 70 percent chance an earthquake will occur. The problem [with predicting earthquakes] in New York is that the fault is not active, so you don’t know how much stress is in the fault.  It’s relatively unpredictable, especially if you’re asking about New York City,” Crooker said.

If it happens here, though, Fordham has a ranked plan, from one to five, covering  “all of the bad things that could happen to Fordham,” said John Carroll, assistant vice president of safety and security at Fordham and a member of the school’s emergency management council.  An earthquake, along with terrorism and aircraft collisions near campus are termed “Level 5,” he said. Every resident student receives an “Emergency Procedures Handbook” annually, which has 13 recommendations for students in case of an earthquake. These include securing ourselves by holding onto an interior wall or standing in a doorway.

And while we’re standing in that doorway, Fordham’s own lab, on campus since 1923, will be recording the quake. The lab sits on bedrock, allowing for the sensitive seismometer to measure the earth for energy closely.

“An earthquake releases a lot of energy,” he said. “The waves [from Haiti] bounced around the world multiple times, and two hours later, the waves were still ringing like a bell.”  A major quake anywhere in the world—from Haiti to China to San Francisco—would register clearly on Fordham’s equipment.

Carroll is glad Fordham does not rest near an active fault; however, he is aware of the dormant dangers.

“We’re blessed that we’re not in Oakland or in San Francisco. Not withstanding that, there are fault lines running through Manhattan,” Carroll said. “Our job is to hope for the best and plan for the worst.”