Significant East Coast quake felt on campus

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KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug. 23, 2011 – An earthquake that rocked Virginia and Washington, D.C. mildly shook the Kingston campus today during what University of Rhode Island’s Dan Murray called one of the most significant quakes in the last 100 years on the East Coast.

Murray spoke with WPRO AM 630’s Matt Allen on The Buddy Cianci Show Tuesday afternoon about the quake, which registered a 5.9 on the magnitude scale and caused the Pentagon to be evacuated. He explained that East Coast earthquakes are rare because the major boundary of the Earth’s surface runs through the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. By comparison, the boundary on the West Coast runs through the San Andreas Fault in California.

“We don’t get earthquakes here very often,” said Murray, professor emeritus of geosciences. “When we do, a number of people believe what is happening is that the Earth’s surface has broken up and then reassembled, like taking a jigsaw puzzle apart and putting it back together and arranging it differently several times. What all that means is that there may be a zone of weakness in what is normally a quiet piece of real estate.”

Murray said he had received calls from people in Narragansett and on Block Island who had felt the quake. There also were reports of people on the Kingston campus feeling the ground shake.

According to Murray, to find record of the largest East Coast earthquakes, you have to go back to the 1800s. One measuring a 6.5 on the magnitude scale hit off Cape Ann, Mass. in 1875, but didn’t cause much damage. Another in 1806 that hit in Mississippi was felt as far north as Boston.

“There are some very long, distinct faults that were active at a time when Africa was colliding with North America, for example,” Murray said. “That has been over for hundreds of millions of years and Africa has moved away on its own, but there still are stresses that are locked up in the rocks, and these can be released every so often.

“These earthquakes can be significant, but they are very rare. The fact that they are so rare makes it doubly hard to predict when the next earthquake will occur.”

Murray does not anticipate significant damage in the Northeast. He said it is possible that aftershocks from Tuesday’s earthquake could be felt over the next couple days, though the magnitude would be reduced as more time passes. While he didn’t expect damage from Tuesday’s quake, a similar one hitting closer to New England would be a problem for areas like downtown Providence and Boston, where buildings are built on wet areas that have been filled in.

“We don’t get big earthquakes here, like on the West Coast,” Murray said. “The ones we get are rare. The flip side of that coin is that we are completely unprepared for earthquakes. We don’t have the same kind of building code that they do on the West Coast.”

Several media outlets called URI about the nuclear reactor located on the Narragansett Bay Campus. The reactor was not operating during the earthquake, so there was no danger. It is only active during times of ongoing research, which was not happening yesterday.