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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 17, 2009
“Like a plane crashing”
By Anne Hayden
BERNE Fifty earthquakes have rocked the Hilltowns in the last 29 years, and nearly half of those have occurred since February of 2009. Geologists don’t know the catalyst behind the frequent seismic activity.
On Sunday, Dec. 13, two earthquakes shook Berne; the second one registered a 3.1 on the Richter magnitude scale, making it the strongest quake out of all 50. The first quake registered a 2.6 on the scale.
The range since 1980 has been anywhere from 1.2 to 3.1. A 3.0 is the smallest earthquake that can be felt, according to Dr. Chuck Ver Straeten, New York State Museum and State Geological Survey geologist.
Ver Straeten lives in Berne, and said that a neighbor told him the second quake on Sunday “felt and sounded like a plane crashing out in a field.” He, along with other geologists, does not know why Berne is experiencing this series of earthquakes.
It is more typical to get earthquakes along the edges of tectonic plates, or where there is volcanic activity, neither of which applies to Berne, Ver Straeten said. Even in New York State, it is more common to have seismic activity in the Adirondacks and down toward the city.
One possible explanation for Berne’s tremors is that the east coast was a site of major mountain-building activity between 250 million and 1.2 billion years ago, according to Ver Straeten. Some of the faults from that time are still deep in the rocks, he said. Exposed rocks containing faults in the Adirondacks run under the ground to Albany, and most likely to Berne; the depth of Sunday’s earthquakes, measured by a seismometer, was around 10 kilometers, Ver Straeten said.
A number of minor earthquakes, despite the cause, is a good thing, according to Ver Straeten. Movement along a fault generates the activity, and, when lots of tension builds up with no release, large movement can occur, triggering a major earthquake, which could cause damage, he said. The small, frequent temblors in the Hilltowns indicate small slips along fault lines, which means there is less chance of a tension build-up and a major earthquake.
“But, you can never say never,” said Ver Straeten. No one is specifically studying the Berne area to get to the root cause of the quakes, he said. The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, with Columbia University, has expressed interest, he said, but funding, especially in this economy, is difficult to obtain.
The New York State Geological Survey has applied for grant money to map the Berne quadrangle, Ver Straeten said, and, if the funding is received, he will study the rocks in the area for exposed fault lines. The area has not been mapped since the 1920s, he said.
“These frequent, small earthquakes are actually a good thing to see,” Ver Straeten concluded. “The ones we are getting are very minor, and few, if any people, will feel them.”