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03-28-2001

Could The North Country Get The Shakes Again? Repeat Of '44 Earthquake Possible.

POTSDAM, N.Y. -- San Francisco, 1906. Anchorage, 1965.  Los Angeles, 1971. San Francisco (again), 1989. Northridge, Ca., 1994. Seattle, 2001.

The roll call of notable earthquakes over the years might leave you with the feeling that earthquakes happen only on the West Coast. Not so.

The Empire State has an earthquake history of its own. On September 5, 1944, a quake measuring 6.0 shook Massena and nearby Cornwall, Ontario, causing $2 million worth of structural damage to schools and homes. The earthquake -- to this day, the worst earthquake ever to hit the state – was felt as far south as Maryland and as far west as Indiana.

Fifty-seven years later, can it happen again? Two local college professors have teamed up to explore that possibility by evaluating the behavior of clay under seismic conditions.

Dayakar Penumadu, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Clarkson University, and Frank Revetta, professor of earth science and geophysics at SUNY Potsdam, presented “A Study of the Distribution, Thickness and Elastic Moduli of the Massena Clay, St. Lawrence County, New York” at the 36th annual meeting of the Northeastern Section of the Geological Society held recently in Burlington, Vt. The meeting, co-sponsored by the University of Vermont and eight other schools in the Champlain region, drew more than 900 geoscientists.

The study and its preliminary findings are based on research done in the field by Revetta, and in the lab by Penumadu and his graduate students. The purpose of the research is to determine why a particular type of clay fails during earthquakes. Data was collected at Snell Lock on the St. Lawrence Seaway; on a stretch of road along state Route 37, where the clay outcrops; and at an area in Massena where a large landslide occurred several years ago.

According to Penumadu, St. Lawrence County has three types of deposits, one of which is Massena (or Leda) Clay. All of the damage inflicted by the Massena earthquake of 1944 occurred to structures built on this clay. Penumadu thinks early research could help geotechnical engineers better understand why the clay fails when the earth moves.

“We are now evaluating the shear strength behavior of this thixotropic clay, and developing a method to use this information to study the behavior of this clay in earthquake-type conditions,” says Penumadu.

“Our project will be useful for evaluating the seismic hazard in this area,” says Revetta, director of SUNY Potsdam's Seismic Network and author of an annual seismic report for Northern New York. “We’ve only done three sites, so there’s a lot more work to be done.”

Penumadu feels that there has not been a concerted effort in the past for studying the behavior of Massena Clay under dynamic loading conditions. “The preliminary results presented at the Geological Society meeting are a first step in establishing base-line data,” he says.

Penumadu and Revetta say a second earthquake in St. Lawrence County is quite possible.

“When the Massena-Cornwall earthquake of 1944 occurred, it caused damage restricted to structures on the Massena Clay,” says Revetta. “The quake's vibrations caused the Massena Clay to fail, causing large amounts of damage. In 1944, Massena wasn’t as highly populated as it is today and there weren’t as many structures as today. A repeat of the 1944 Massena-Cornwall quake could cause several times the damage done in 1944.”

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or aharrison@clarkson.edu.]

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