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Learning what lies beneath

JMU professor Steve Whitmeyer says there's still much to be learned about the deep crustal weaknesses that facilitate eastern U.S. earthquakes

JMU students replacing seismometer battery

JMU's Aimee Schuppin and Katie Cross ('11) with Diego Quiros from Cornell University perform fieldwork in the region of the central Virginia earthquake

The 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered in Virginia on Aug. 23 and felt along the U.S. East Coast jolted Easterners out of their complacency that “earthquakes don't happen here.” Buildings emptied, people made frantic phone calls to locate loved ones, and suddenly tremors, fault lines and seismometers became the topic of discussion.

There’s still much to be learned about the deep crustal weaknesses that facilitate eastern U.S. earthquakes, such as the one just experienced, according to JMU’s Steve Whitmeyer, associate professor of structural geology and tectonics. A program to facilitate that understanding is currently under way. EarthScope, a National Science Foundation program, deploys thousands of seismic, GPS and other geophysical instruments to study the structure and evolution of the North American continent and the processes that cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Whitmeyer is the chair of the EarthScope Education and Outreach subcommittee and a member of the EarthScope steering committee.

The program allows scientists, educators, policy makers, and the public to collaborate to learn about and utilize exciting scientific discoveries as they are being made. An array of seismometers known as USArray began deployment in 2004 on the U.S. West Coast and has progressively moved eastward each year. The array has just reached the eastern banks of the Mississippi River and is expected to reach Virginia in 2012-13. “USArray is not a response to the recent earthquake in central Virginia, but the data collected from the array should help in understanding deep crustal weaknesses that facilitate eastern U.S. earthquakes, such as the one just experienced,” says Whitmeyer.

JMU students

Rain and mud didn't deter John Picklap, Craig Morris, Katie Cross, Aimee Schuppin and Jess Jondahl from field research.

“As USArray moves into our area, we will certainly have undergrads involved in seismic-related research projects,” says Whitmeyer. “We did have a group of JMU undergraduate students out in the field Sept. 6 helping service some seismometers that were installed by other researchers in the region of the central Virginia earthquake in order to collect subsurface data from the aftershocks of the main quake.”

Two other JMU Geology and Environmental Science faculty members engage in research related to EarthScope goals: and Anna Courtier, a geophysicist and Elizabeth Johnson, a geochemist. And two former JMU students are also involved with EarthScope: Cindy Dick is program manager at the national office, which is located at Arizona State University and Wendy Bohon is a Ph.D. student at ASU doing EarthScope-related research.