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 Global Geophysics

Nigel Wattrus

Above: the display in Heller Hall.

SEE VIDEO CLIP of Wattrus at the display.
UMD’s Seismograph
Recording Seismic Activity Since 2007

UMD’s seismograph, which has been recording seismic activity since 2007, has been on display since Fall semester 2008. The seismograph, which accurately measures ground motion, is recording information 24/7 to display to students walking through the first floor of Heller Hall. It converts ground movements into a signal that can be recorded, viewed and printed.

UMD's seismograph is housed in Heller Hall. It's used as an outreach program to educate the public about earthquakes, geological sciences and the geology program, but it's also used as a teaching tool for classes. Currently, Nigel Wattrus, an associate professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, teaches a course called Global Geophysics and uses the seismograph data in his class.

“I'm primarily the only person that uses the data in the classroom, but it could be used in the intro class [Geology and Earth Systems],” Wattrus said. “When we see a big event of interest, we create an interactive animated montage, which gives the folks walking down the hall a little bit of background information on what's happened, where it happened, and what the consequences are of that event. We also have that data available to use in the classroom.”

Wattrus said he would like to eventually put up a web page featuring a real-time display from UMD’s seismograph and information on recent events it has recorded so that not just the immediate community, but anyone in the world can see what UMD's seismograph is recording.

Every day, Wattrus checks the records and status of the seismograph, but he doesn't have to walk down to it each time he checks it. The system isn't like the older seismographs, which used long rolls of paper, a stylus, and ink that needed to be changed daily. Instead it is accessible via secure link over the Internet. “Anywhere I have access to the Internet, I can talk to the machine. I can download data from it, and I can put data up to it. It's very user friendly,” Wattrus said.

Most of the information shown on the seismograph's record is noise due to the seismic station's location in the lower level of Heller Hall. The building is near a busy road and inside the building there is a lot of foot traffic. However big seismic events are easy to distinguish by their characteristic patterns.

How it Works
A seismograph measures the ground motion produced by distant earthquakes. It converts the motion into a signal that can be recorded and printed. The system regularly detects earthquakes with magnitudes of 5 and higher. Earthquake magnitude is a logarithmic measure of earthquake size. In simple terms, this means that at the same distance from the earthquake, the shaking will be 10 times as large during a magnitude 5 earthquake as during a magnitude 4 earthquake. The largest magnitude earthquake occurred in Chile in 1960, it had a magnitude of 9.5. The largest earthquake in Minnesota was a magnitude 4.6 earthquake that struck west-central Minnesota near Morris in 1975.

Besides displaying live data from the system’s seismometer located in the basement of Heller Hall, it can also monitor and gather information from any seismic station around the world that broadcasts its data over the Internet. The display also includes information on recent seismic events. These animated displays include background information from the USGS and other news sources in addition to the record collected by UMD’s system.

“People in MN don't have much experience with seismic shaking. It's not even on their radar,” Wattrus said. He hopes to develop more ways to show the seismograph's capabilities, “We're probably only scratching the surface with this thing.”

Since UMD already had a seismic censor from previous funds, Wattrus, who has been at UMD for 14 years, and Howard Mooers, geology department head, wrote a proposal to purchase the equipment needed to construct the seismograph and animated display for Heller Hall.

The seismograph was been operated for almost a year in order to work through the kinks and get rid of the bugs before it was put on public display in fall 2008. There aren’t many seismic stations in Minnesota. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) operate two seismograph sites one of which is Ely.

For information contact Nigel Wattrus at

Written by Donna O'Neill, English and Journalism Student

Geological Sciences

UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830

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