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.
"We ask for a 10-year commitment. The equipment lasts in excess of 10 years," she said.
There is a startup cost involved, about $20,000, which includes nearly $3,000 in monitoring equipment as well as weekly visits to the school this year and next by a program scientist.
Nettle Principal Gerald Kayo, a former science teacher, said he signed onto the project in good faith, so now he still must raise the $20,000 to pay for the program.
"The project can be sustained in future years without major future costs," Kayo said. "Once teachers are trained, they'll be able to pass on what they learned to other teachers."
Kayo sees the project as benefiting the entire community. He wants students to make their earthquake reports and findings available to visitors during school events.
"We hope to eventually extend this program to other schools in the city and make it a districtwide project," Kayo said.
The goal of the project is to make science accessible to students and to develop their interest in science.
Seismologist Leslie Campbell will visit the school each week throughout the year and into next year to teach students and teachers about Earth science, including the study and analysis of earthquakes, how to use and calibrate the seismograph, how to interpret its readings, or seismograms, as well as Earth science topics such as plate tectonics - movement of the plates that form the Earth's surface.
"It's a hands-on, inquiry-based science research program that encompasses many additional classroom curriculum, especially mathematics," Bibeau said. "Students need the mathematics to define the earthquakes. And when they study the solar system, they'll be learning about other planets, their geological formations, and their relevance to the Earth."
The seismology project is carried out in partnership with the Lynch School of Education at Boston College to ensure that it not only meets, but exceeds, MCAS and Massachusetts curriculum frameworks standards, Bibeau said.
In essence, Nettle School will become a reporting center for scientists. The seismograph will collect and transfer data via an Internet-connected computer to the Weston Observatory 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"A lot of people are going to want to be in on this project," Takis said. "They'll be knocking on our doors."
If you would like to help the school fund its seismology project, you can send donations of any amount to: Nettle Middle School, c/o Seismology Project, 150 Boardman St., Haverhill, MA 0830.
Earthquakes in the Merrimack Valley during past year
Location Date Magnitude*
Ossipee, N.H. April 10, 2005 1.5
Lowell/Dracut Oct. 10, 2005 1.4
Plymouth Nov. 17, 2005 2.3
Wakefield Jan. 17, 2006 1.3
Athol April 22, 2006 0.8
Amesbury April 26, 2006 0.9
Concord, N.H. May 11, 2006 2.3
Concord, N.H. Aug 20, 2006 1.7
*Based on Nuttli Magnitude Scale, which is used in New England. The Richter Scale is used in the Western part of the country. The choice of scales depends on type of soil in the region. The magnitude, or severity, has similar numbers on the two scales.
Source: Weston Observatory
Severity of earthquakes (based on Nuttli Magnitude Scale)
Large (destructive) 6.0-6.9
Moderate (damaging) 5.0-5.9
Minor (damage slight) 4.0-4.9
Generally felt 3.0-3.9
Potentially perceptible 2.0-2.9
Imperceptible less than 2.0
Source: Weston Observatory
Historic earthquakes in New England
In 1755, the last magnitude 6.5 earthquake in the region struck just east of Cape Ann. It was felt from Nova Scotia to South Carolina, and caused much chimney damage but no building collapses, said seismologist John Ebel.
In 1638, Pilgrims in southeastern New England felt a quake that Ebel believes was about magnitude 6.5. Missionaries along the St. Lawrence River in Canada also reported feeling that quake, he said.
In 1999, a magnitude 2.7 quake hit the Amesbury area, knocking pictures off shelves and causing minor cracks in some walls.