Penn State partners with Commonwealth to build seismic monitoring network

Jesse Westbrook
May 18, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Researchers at Penn State are closing in on the completion of a statewide network that monitors seismic activity.

Expected to be completed this summer, the network, which is a collaboration between Penn State’s Department of Geosciences, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), will serve the public and government agencies.

“The information we will provide about seismic events in Pennsylvania will be especially useful for policymakers at the agencies,” said Andrew Nyblade, professor of geosciences at Penn State and the principal investigator on the seismic network project. “It will also be useful for people who are generally interested in earthquakes that they notice where they live.”

“This network has greatly improved our capability to detect seismic events too small to be felt by people on the ground,” said Gale Blackmer, state geologist and bureau director for the DCNR. “The data is an important research tool to better understand the state’s geology, and it provides an improved picture of naturally occurring seismic events, as well as induced events that might result from quarry blasts, inject and hydraulic fracturing (fracking).”

The network recently garnered national interest after it detected seismic activity along the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, raising questions about a possible link between fracking and earthquakes.

On April 25 and 26, Penn State’s seismic network recorded five earthquakes with magnitudes between 1.7 and 1.9 in Lawrence County, near the Ohio border in western Pennsylvania.

“We have not done enough analysis of the data to make any conclusions yet,” said Nyblade, “but there is a correlation spatially and temporally between the fracking and the earthquakes.”

In 2014, several small earthquakes with magnitudes of 3.0 or below were linked to fracking at a Utica Shale well in eastern Ohio, nearby where the April 2016 earthquakes occurred. Humans typically begin feeling earthquakes once they reach a 3.0 magnitude or higher.

Seismic monitoring works by using underground stations, which contain ground motion sensors and data acquisition systems to detect and record the Earth’s ground vibrations.

“With the funding from the DCNR and DEP, our goal is to build and operate 30 seismic stations in Pennsylvania,” said Nyblade. “As of now, we’re about two-thirds of the way done, and we hope to be finished sometime this summer.”

Penn State’s seismic network uses state-of-the-art equipment in stations found on Penn State’s campuses and Pennsylvania state parks. The data from the stations are then sent through the Internet to a computer server in Penn State’s Department of Geosciences, where they are then analyzed to locate seismic events. The network’s detection threshold is around magnitude 2.0, but the Lawrence County earthquakes revealed that it may actually be slightly lower, and Nyblade said they will need to complete the network before they will know for sure.

Seismic monitoring is an important science because understanding when and where seismic activity occurs can help decision-makers take the necessary precautions to protect people and infrastructure.

Governmental agencies in Pennsylvania have been interested in monitoring seismic activity for many years.

In 2006, researchers from Penn State teamed with the DCNR to monitor seismic activity across Pennsylvania, a predecessor to the current network.

In 2015, the DCNR teamed with DEP to increase funding for earthquake monitoring in the commonwealth through a partnership with Penn State.

Once completed, the network and its data will be uploaded to a website that can be accessed openly by the public. 

  • Seismic network

    Pictured is casing for an extension cord and Ethernet cable running from a seismic station to the main office at Yellow Creek State Park in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. This is one of 30 seismic monitoring stations that comprise the statewide network, which is slated to be completed this summer.

    IMAGE: Kyle Homman / Penn State
  • seismic monitoring station

    A nearly completed seismic monitoring installation in Shawnee State Park, located in southcentral Pennsylvania, is one of 30 such stations planned statewide.

    IMAGE: Kyle Homman / Penn State
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Last Updated May 24, 2016