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October 1, 2006

Feeling the Earth move: Students get the jump on studying New England earthquakes

HAVERHILL - So you think earthquakes in the United State are mostly a California phenomenon?

Think again.

The Earth's plates have shifted under New England an average of twice a month this year, but the quakes are seldom noticed because they aren't severe.

A group of local fledgling scientists will help document how often the Earth shakes around us. Students at Nettle Middle School are embarking on a project to help experts from Boston College track and analyze earthquakes, and even predict when and where they will occur.

Seismologists at the Weston Observatory of Geology and Geophysics of Boston College are reaching out to schools in New England where students will staff stations to gather earthquake data. Nettle took advantage of the offer, and judging from recent events, the students will be busy.

On April 26, scientists at the Weston Observatory measured an earthquake in Amesbury. On Sept. 22, they were busy monitoring a dozen earthquakes in Maine. From January through August of this year, New England experienced 14 earthquakes, according to the observatory. Last year, 15 quakes happened in New England.

Nettle science students will monitor earthquake activity using a seismograph that will be installed in one of their classrooms. The device is so sensitive that it can measure and record earthquakes ranging from an imperceptible shimmy in New England to building-shake events in Asia.

It will record the rumble of an event such as a large truck passing by. A seismologist will visit the school each week to teach students and teachers how to tell the difference between seismic disturbances and how to locate each event's source and magnitude - the measure of its destructive force.

Haverhill is one of more than 30 New England schools participating in the project.

Seventh-grader Alexandra McArthur, 12, told her science teacher, Maureen Takis, that she had a plan for testing the device once it is set up at her school.

"All the kids in the school should jump up and down at the same time," Alexandra said.

Takis has been teaching Earth science for years, but once this project is up and running, it will change how and what she teaches.

"Having this machine in our building will make the study of Earth science more meaningful," she said. "Kids are always amazed to learn that earthquakes are happening all the time and that we live in an earthquake prone area."

Marilyn Bibeau, administrator for the seismology project, said her program looks for motivated teachers and schools willing to make a long-term commitment.

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