HUNTING HILLTOWNS EARTHQUAKES

The next big one probably won't be in Berne, but temblors draw scientists to farmer's field

RICK KARLIN CAPITOL BUREAU
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Thursday, April 29, 2010

BERNE -- Bob Motschmann didn't give it a whole lot of thought when a small earthquake rattled his farm back in February. "The house shook, there was a roar," recalled Motschmann, who said he first thought a plane had crashed in one of his corn fields. But it turned out to be another one of the harmless tremors that occasionally rattle the Hilltowns, which are taken in stride by residents of this windy, rural area.


"I went into my office and all the books were sitting on the floor," chuckled John Carsten, who lives nearby.


"I understand there wasn't much reaction here," said Nano Seeber, a seismologist from Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, which studies and tracks seismic activity.


Despite the casual attitude of Hilltown residents, Seeber and fellow scientists at the observatory, 140 miles away, were taking note, quietly "listening" in on the seismic activity through their network of seismographs, which detect and record rumblings, all across the Northeast.


They were interested enough that Won-Young Kim, who heads Lamont Doherty's seismic network, was digging a 2-foot pit in one of Motschmann's fields Wednesday to install a seismograph which will hopefully provide a closer look at earthquake activity here.


It was one of three devices to be set in a triangle about 10 miles apart that they'll use to track movements deep within the earth.


Finding the proper spot wasn't easy. In addition to the hole, where Kim buried his bucket-sized seismometer, scientists needed a good southern exposure for the two solar panels mounted on a tripod that will charge the batteries used by the devices. They also wanted a quiet, remote area, away from traffic rumblings.


The only traffic at this spot is from deer on a windswept hill above a corn field. In addition to the buried equipment, which was then covered with an inverted trash can, there's also a GPS device which is used to keep time so seismographers can tell within a thousandth of a second when the disturbances occur.


Intensity of the vibrations are recorded on a computer disk which scientists will retrieve every two weeks.


While it's possible to create immediate read-outs with satellite phones, Young said that costlier technique is reserved for West Coast seismographs. "All the money is going to California," he said with a grin.


Scientists know there is a fault line that runs from Lake George down through this area. By tracking seismic activity, they hope to get a clearer picture of the fault line.


"This is a well-known fault," said Seeber.


Epicenter of the recent quakes, Kim believes, is somewhere along Switz Kill Road near Partridge Run Road just outside the village of Berne.


To be sure, this isn't an East Coast version of the San Andreas Fault. The older rock found in the Northeast along with the lack of massive, moving tectonic plates, greatly lowers the odds of a catastrophic quake. Nor is there volcanic activity that can also prompt major quakes.


But the frequency of the minor quakes here, combined with an active history, makes it worthy of attention.


"There is enough concern that we believe it should be examined," said John Armbruster, another seismologist.


Lamont-Doherty scientists have detected about two dozen quakes around Berne during the last two years as well as one on March 24. None have caused any serious damage but researchers want to know if they could presage something bigger.


Essentially, the extent to which people should worry about a major quake comes down to a numbers game in which elements of chance, time and the population of a given location come into play.


The Adirondacks are the most seismically active region in the state. But because the region is so sparsely populated, earthquakes aren't viewed as a major threat.


The damage a large quake can cause in a populated area means scientists need to keep track.


"The hazard has to be low. But the hazard of Katrina was low," said Armbruster. "Eventually time will catch up with you."


Indeed, the possibility of a big quake is of enough concern that Dan O'Brien, a program manager for the State Emergency Management Organization, was among those on hand as Kim planted his seismographs.


The 2002 earthquake in the Adirondack community of Ausable Forks -- magnitude 5.3 -- cracked roads and damaged an estimated 900 homes but resulted in no serious injuries.


Had that quake erupted in a place like Albany or even New York City the destruction, and possibility of injuries or even death, would multiply many times making for what O'Brien would term a "low probability, high consequence event."


There have already been some close calls.


Scientists believe a 1884 quake which rattled Rockaway in Queens was centered in New York Harbor, said Armbruster. "If you moved that underneath Brooklyn and had that happen now, everyone in the world would know about it."


Reach Rick Karlin at 454-5758 or rkarlin@timesunion.com