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Shaken Up by East Coast Earthquake

August 24, 2011

Category: A Closer Look

At about 1:51 p.m. on August 23, cell phone networks were congested, tweets of personal earthquake reports filled the Twittersphere, office buildings were evacuated, traffic lights were knocked out and sirens filled the streets all along…the East Coast.

A 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck Virginia, affecting several states along the U.S. eastern seaboard including Washington, New York and the Carolinas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. An earthquake of this magnitude is unusual in the mid-Atlantic region (which is where the earthquake hit), and this was the largest earthquake to hit the East Coast in more than a century.

Earthquakes are fairly common along the Pacific Coast in western states like California, but are rare on the Atlantic Coast because of its different geological structure. Thomas Rockwell, a professor in San Diego State University’s Department of Geological Sciences, believes there are two potential reasons for the quake in Virginia.

“One possible reason for the earthquake would be the continuing effects of the glacial unloading on the eastern seaboard from 10 to 15,000 years ago,” said Rockwell.

Glaciers, extremely massive and heavy sheets of ice, put enormous pressure on the portion of the Earth’s surface they cover.  When they melt that pressure is released, causing geological reactions like earthquakes.

According to Rockwell, the second possible cause relates to plate tectonics—a concept that combines the ideas about continental drift and sea-floor spreading. The Earth’s oceanic and continental plates are constantly in motion and when they interact along their margins, geological processes such as earthquakes and volcanoes can take place. Even though a rare occurrence, tectonic stresses in mid-continent region are present and this can result in an earthquake.

Rockwell, who has been a professor at SDSU for nearly 30 years, is one of many CSU faculty who are seasoned professionals in the field.

“SDSU hires faculty that are not just teachers—they’re teacher scholars,” said Rockwell.

Campuses, like SDSU, take pride in hiring faculty that are well versed in the research component, as well as the teaching. They often integrate their research in the field into their curriculum, helping students gain a hands-on approach in the field through thesis work or research assistance.

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