Baylor Scientists Participate in Largest Federal Geoscience Project To Date

  • News Photo 4687
    Dr. Jay Pulliam
  • News Photo 4686
    Dr. Vincent Cronin
April 20, 2009

Media contact: Frank Raczkiewicz, Assistant Vice President of Media Communications, 254-710-1964

Baylor University scientists are playing a role in an on-going nationwide effort to image Earth beneath North America and map the country's seismic activity.

The Baylor scientists and their research teams have found suitable locations for 21 seismographs in Central Texas and will play "host" to two additional seismic stations as part of EarthScope, the largest geoscience project ever funded by the federal government. In addition, the Baylor scientists installed a 70-station network focused on the Rio Grande Rift, a rift valley extending north from Mexico, near El Paso, through New Mexico and into central Colorado. The program involves the National Science Foundation, the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), the U.S. Geological Survey, NASA and hundreds of geoscientists from universities around the country.

EarthScope's principal seismological program is called U.S. Array and it consists of three parts: the Transportable Array, the Flexible Array and the Reference Network. Baylor researchers are actively contributing to all three components.

"We are proud that Baylor is part of the effort to collect the most detailed picture of the structure of the North American continent ever attempted," said Dr. Jay Pulliam, professor of geophysics at Baylor who helped bring EarthScope to Baylor. "This work will provide research opportunities for graduate, undergraduate and even gifted local high-school students."

EarthScope's Transportable Array is a network of more than 400 broadband seismographs installed in a north-south, east-west grid pattern. In 2007, the seismographs were placed in the western U.S. and collected data for two years. The seismographs are now being moved eastward to new locations, including Central Texas. Between 2007 and 2013, approximately 1,600 sites will be occupied across the continental U.S.

The Baylor scientists have just completed finding 21 Transportable Array seismograph sites in an area stretching from San Angelo to Waco. The seismographs are approximately 40 miles apart from each other and away from possible sources of noise interference such as strong power lines or factories.

The work was funded by an EarthScope grant to Baylor's Center for Spatial Research, an interdisciplinary center that fosters the use of spatial technologies in research and teaching.

Baylor also will host two seismographs of the Reference Network that were just installed at locations near Lake Whitney and Abilene. The Reference Network is a set of stations that will remain fixed throughout the 10-year EarthScope project and is considered the backbone that allows scientists to tie together all the observations from the temporary stations. By hosting the stations, Baylor researchers will provide minor operations support, visually inspect station equipment and fix any equipment problems that may occur.

Funding to install and maintain these stations is provided by EarthScope. After the U.S. Array project ends in 2013, the two stations will become a permanent part of the national seismic network that is operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. The seismographs are already operational and even recorded seismic waves from the earthquake that devastated central Italy on April 6. Baylor geoscientists and their students can use data recorded at these stations to study the Earth's structure beneath Texas.

The Flexible Array is a set of instruments that allows researchers to focus on specific targets. In 2007, Pulliam wrote a proposal to NSF that requested the use of 75 broadband seismographs from the Flexible Array to study the Rio Grande Rift. A team of researchers installed the seismographs in New Mexico and West Texas in the summer of 2008. They will remain in place for two years to record earthquakes from all over the world and the data will be used to image the structure beneath the rift.

"For any geoscientist interested in earthquakes, plate tectonics, or the structure and evolution of the North American continent, participation in EarthScope is a magnificent opportunity," said Dr. Vincent Cronin, professor of geology at Baylor and director of Baylor's Center for Spatial Research. "EarthScope brings geoscientists together in working groups as no project has before, leading to a revolution in our understanding of Earth in general and the North American continent in particular."

The Baylor researchers will use geophysical data generated by EarthScope and other projects to help them recognize potentially dangerous faults that can produce earthquakes and to learn about the processes by which our continent is evolving. The two reference seismograph stations that Baylor now hosts are among the hundreds of seismographs that contribute information to the national database. The two stations will be part of nearly 100 that remain behind to become permanent parts of the USGS's Advanced National Seismic System.

For more information, contact Dr. Pulliam at (254) 710-2183 or Dr. Cronin at (254) 710-2174.

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