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Nov. 17, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 6

Weston Observatory Director Prof. John Ebel (Geology and Geophysics) talks with Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey during her visit Monday as part of the observatory's 75th anniversary celebration. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

Observatory Marks 75 Years of Watching Earth's Moves

By Greg Frost
Staff Writer

If the earth shakes again in New England like it did back in 1755, the staff at Boston College's Weston Observatory may well be heard muttering: "Don't say we didn't warn you."

The observatory marked its 75th anniversary of seismic recordings Monday with a celebration featuring remarks by Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey. But the observatory's director, Prof. John Ebel (Geology and Geophysics), has another milestone on the mind: tomorrow's 250th anniversary of the great Cape Ann quake.

At about 4:30 a.m. on November 18, 1755, the earth shook violently across a large swath of what were then the British colonies. Observers reported damage to chimneys, brick buildings and stone walls from Maine to south of Boston, and as far away as Springfield and New Haven. The earthquake - by modern standards estimated at about 6.0 to 6.3 on the Richter Scale - was felt as far away as Nova Scotia, Lake Champlain and even South Carolina. Its epicenter is thought to have been about 25 miles east of Cape Ann in an area where several small earthquakes also have been detected during the past 30 years.

While there is no telling when it will happen, Ebel says a powerful tremor will hit eastern Massachusetts again - and could cause billions of dollars in damage to Greater Boston.

"Sooner or later, another strong earthquake will be triggered in New England," he says, adding that older structures built on soft river bottoms and landfill - such as Boston's posh Back Bay district - will be most at risk.

In 1930, the first seismic recordings were put on the drums out in Weston, and the first earthquake was recorded the following year. Ebel and his staff at the observatory are hoping to use the data that the facility has collected since then as well as the readings it will compile in the future to try to guess where and when the next big quake might occur and how strong it could be.

"For that reason, our work is becoming more important now as it looks toward the future while still relying on data we collected in the past," says Ebel.

Weston Observatory is the department's geophysical research laboratory, bringing both graduate and undergraduate students to conduct research there.

But it is also is a living testimony to the value the Jesuits have traditionally placed on mathematics and science and learning about the physical world. Just as Jesuits in the 17th and 18th centuries established astronomical observatories to understand the heavens, they began building geophysical observatories in the 19th and 20th centuries to understand the Earth.

According to Prof. Emeritus James W. Skehan, SJ, who established BC's department of geology and geophysics and is director emeritus of Weston Observatory, there were 29 Jesuit seismological stations and observatories operating across North America by 1930.

But many of those have since closed, and Weston Observatory - along with facilities at Saint Louis University and Canisius University in Buffalo - is one of the last operational seismological institutes at a Jesuit school in the United States.

"Almost all of the other seismic stations at Jesuit universities in the US disappeared because the universities that housed them chose not to support continued earthquake monitoring," Ebel says. "The result of this is that earthquake monitoring in the US is now done by the larger public and private universities as well as some government agencies, primarily the US Geological Survey."

Weston is very much an active player in the study of earthquakes. Today, the site houses seismic instruments for the World-Wide Standardized Seismic Network - six seismometers monitor the earth's activity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year - and for the New England Seismic Network, a series of stations that monitor earthquake activity throughout the six-state region. Ebel and other observatory researchers often work day and night providing information about earthquake activity near and far to scientific colleagues as well as to print and broadcast media around the world.

In addition to scientific research, the observatory offers a range of lectures and other programs designed to inform and educate the public about its work. Observatory researchers conduct a lecture series which over the past year has addressed topics ranging from forecasting earthquakes and marine seismology to monitoring active volcanoes.

It has instituted the Boston College Educational Seismology Project, working with K-12 teachers and school systems in Brighton, Weston, Wellesley, Lexington, Somerville and Waltham, among others. Through the program, schools put a small seismometer in the classroom, and the observatory helps the students understand what they're recording.

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