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Discovery Discovery March/April 2001
Main Page On the Web Grants Corner Featured Stories

Seattle, California Not the Only
Places that Shake

by Evelyn Boswell scientists

MSU earthquake scientists (from left) Jerry Stephens, Joe Fedock, and Dave Lageson. (MSU photo/Linda Best)

When an earthquake last jostled Montana, it was nothing new to Joseph Fedock, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at Montana State University.

Fedock is an earthquake engineer who figures he survived 11 good-sized earthquakes before moving to Bozeman in 1990. Clearly, he knew what was happening when his chair started rocking in Montana Hall in 1999.

"It was very definitely an earthquake," Fedock said of the Aug. 20 quake that brought back all the instincts he'd honed during his California years. (Don't bolt from a building while it's shaking, for example).

Admittedly, Montana's 5.3 earthquake that year caused none of the devastation of this year's earthquakes in India and El Salvador. It didn't attract the national media like the Feb. 28 earthquake in Seattle. But Montana's quake did draw attention to what Fedock and MSU researchers have been saying all along -- that California isn't the only state that gets the shakes. Montana, in fact, is the fourth most seismically active state in the nation.

"All of the western United States is earthquake country," said David Lageson, professor of structural geology. "It's just one seismic belt after another."

Recent earthquakes have also spotlighted the seismic research and public outreach that's coming out of MSU these days. The earth sciences and civil engineering departments each have researchers addressing questions related to earthquakes. They and Fedock are also trying to convince Montanans that earthquakes can really happen here.

"I'm kind of amazed at the lack of understanding or even just acceptance of the fact that this is earthquake country," commented Lageson, a kind of prophet in his own land. "Most Montanans just don't consider this to be a seismically active region. That always amazes me."

Lageson recently set up a station on campus so anyone walking by 211 Traphagen Hall can see the size and location of the latest earthquakes. On one recent morning, the MSU Seismograph Webicorder showed readings from Barton Gulch near Virginia City and Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. Squiggly lines revealed several areas that felt the 6.1 earthquake that occurred the night before in Japan.

"We don't have to have these old rotating mechanical drums any more," Lageson said. "Now we can display hundreds of instruments around the world digitally on one simple monitor." "Lageson plans to expand the system this spring. In the meantime, he continues trying to understand the development of the Rocky Mountains and the western United States. His research is currently focused on southwest Montana, especially the Paradise Valley south of Livingston and the Centennial Mountains on the Idaho border. He is studying the Bridger Range, as well.

Jerry Stephens, associate professor of civil engineering, is trying to prevent damage from earthquakes, specifically to bridges. Looking for simple ways to strengthen the structures, he conducts experiments in the laboratory and uses computer simulations and analytical modeling.

Stephens and Fedock are both concerened with emergency building inspections after earthquakes.

"Even in Bozeman, Montana, a building could look very heavily damaged and be pretty darn safe or may not look damaged at all and be on the verge of collapse," Stephens said. "So how do you, in the immediate post-earthquake period, assess whether people can occupy them?"

The ideal would be to bring in an already-assembled team of engineers to inspect the joints and other vulnerable areas of a building, Stephens said. But most cities don't have the resources. Instead, they use local emergency personnel who do quick "sidewalk surveys."

Fedock said, "California has pretty elaborate procedures and a fairly extensive system of people with experience, particularly in the construction field, identified as being able to lead a post-earthquake team to help identify that 'Yes, you can go back and occupy that house' or 'No, you can't.'"

Montana needs such a system, especially because its weather is so severe, continued Fedock who has collaborated with faculty researchers on campus and emergency personnel around the state. Unlike southern Californians, Montanans can't live outdoors while they wait to find out when they can return home.

Experts Offer Quake Tips

Lots of simple precautions can minimize danger and damage from an earthquake.

mirrorThe Montana Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program suggests removing breakable and heavy objects from high places. Don't hang heavy mirrors, shelves or pictures over your bed. Bungee-cord all bookshelves. Secure your computers and top-heavy furniture. Check ceiling panels and fluorescent lights to make sure they won't fall. Protect aquariums from sliding or overturning. Secure water heaters by placing metal straps around the heater and bolting the straps to the wall studs. Since most water heaters are tall and cylindrical, they can easily topple over and rupture water and/or gas lines.


Don't flee or enter a building during an earthquake. If you take cover under a sturdy piece of furniture, hold onto it and be prepared to move with it. Keep a pair of shoes next to your bed in case you're surrounded by broken glass or other debris.


Learn to shut off electricity, gas and water main valves.

Stock up on supplies so you can survive comfortably for at least 72 hours without emergency help. Reserves might include water, cash, diapers, flashlight, radio, extra batteries, infant supplies, easy-to-prepare food, toiletries, ax and shovel, water purifiers and pet supplies.

For more ideas, contact your local or state disaster and emergency services coordinator or the American Red Cross.

Evelyn Boswell is the technical writer for the Office of Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer.




© 2000 Montana State University-Bozeman

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