Seismograph measures RMC campus

2010-01-31T23:30:00Z Seismograph measures RMC campusBy BRETT FRENCH Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
January 31, 2010 11:30 pm  • 

From a basement corner of the Bair Science Center, Rocky Mountain College’s heartbeat is closely monitored.

Amid shelves of cylindrical rock core samples and stacks of dusty black and white aerial photos, a soup-can-sized sensor sits on the cold concrete floor. Think of it as a heart monitor. The sensor takes note of the comings and goings of students, when the ventilation system kicks on and while workers are plowing snow from the adjacent parking lot — the beat of Rocky’s bustle. Each activity is a jiggle on a black line displayed on a computer monitor near the center’s north door.

“This is background noise,” explained Larry Jones, 58, assistant professor of geology at Rocky. “Buried in the background are larger quakes in Haiti and California.”

The sensor is for a seismometer, which measures the earth’s movement. Because the sensor is located in the Bair Science Center, it picks up all of the building’s movements, as well as earthquakes from Yellowstone National Park, Illinois and Nevada.

Jones has the seismometer on loan from his former employer, Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo. Although his specialty is sedimentary geology, Jones blends the movement of the earth’s crust along fault lines into his teaching. Quake swarms such as the one now shaking Yellowstone provide teaching moments.

“Rocky’s a small school, so we become generalists,” he said. “It’s fun to play with, and I get to learn stuff, too.”

And students find earthquakes and volcanoes cool, he added.

The best recordings of earthquakes come during the night, when the building is relatively quiet. When seismic events do occur, Jones sends out an e-mail to a list of about 40 interested students and faculty, along with an explanation.

The earthquakes show up on the seismometer in two spiky peaks. The first spike is the P wave. Think of it as seeing a lightning strike. Then comes the S wave. Think of it as the sound of the lightning strike reaching your ears a few seconds later. By calculating the time between the wave forms, scientists can tell how far away the earthquake occurred and the nature of the rock through which the waves traveled, Jones said. The closer a seismograph is to the epicenter of the quake, the closer the P and S waves.

It takes about 40 seconds for the shock of the recent earthquakes in Yellowstone to travel to Billings, or about four miles per second for the P wave, Jones said. The S wave travels about 2.5 miles per second.

Jones has created a small explanation of such details, using a display on the wall next to the computer monitor, in the hall near the science center’s north door.

“The idea is this is where the students hang out between classes,” he said. “It’s a way to educate them.”

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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