UB Geologists Find Evidence That Upstate New York Is Criss-Crossed By Hundreds Of Faults

Release Date: March 14, 2000

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Mention New York State's Finger Lakes region or its Southern Tier, and most people don't automatically think of earthquake country.

But these upstate areas may be about to gain a reputation for greater seismic potential, according to recent research by a team of University at Buffalo geologists.

In several papers and posters he and his students are presenting March 13 and 15 at the meeting of the Northeastern section of the Geological Society of America, Robert D. Jacobi, Ph.D., UB professor of geology and chair of the Northeastern section, contends that he and colleagues have uncovered increasingly convincing evidence that upstate New York is severely chopped by hundreds of faults of a kind characterized by very sporadic seismic activity.

Jacobi conducted the work with John Fountain, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

"We have proof that upstate New York is criss-crossed by faults," said Jacobi.

If the data are confirmed by further analysis, most importantly by seismographs Jacobi and Fountain plan to install in various locations around Western New York, they will directly refute what long has been the conventional geologic wisdom about Upstate New York.

"In the past, the Appalachian Plateau -- which stretches from Albany to Buffalo -- was considered a pretty boring place structurally, without many faults or folds of any significance," explained Jacobi.

But using a variety of field and satellite methods, Jacobi's group has found that there are hundreds of faults throughout the Appalachian Plateau, some of which may have been seismically active -- albeit sporadically -- since Precambrian times, about 1 billion years ago.

The data are both welcome and disturbing, Jacobi said. On the one hand, they are welcome since fractured rocks in the path of these faults make for excellent reservoirs for oil and gas; as a result, some land owners in the Finger Lakes region are experiencing a kind of "gas boom," profiting from selling drilling rights on their land to oil and gas-exploration companies.

But on the other hand, Jacobi explained, the extensive network of fractures and faults also is troubling, particularly where faults may intersect with waste dumps, such as the low-level radioactive waste facility at West Valley and the controversial municipal waste dump now under consideration in Farmersville.

The UB researchers identified potential fault lines using remote sensing by satellite and low-flying planes. They then employed field methods, as well as magnetic fields and gravity measurements, to determine if those potential fault lines are indeed faults and if the faults extend down into Precambrian "basement," an indication that they could be seismically active.

"When we overlaid the maps with the data from the remote sensing, the magnetics and gravity and field tests, we found they all told a consistent story," said Jacobi.

"So now we have four sets of data telling us that in addition to the Clarendon-Linden Fault, there probably are faults to the east of the Clarendon-Linden Fault, as well as in the West Valley region, the Zoar Valley, the central Finger Lakes and all the way to the Mohawk Valley," he said.

The very short geologic record (about 150-200 years) available for upstate New York makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the likelihood of the faults being seismically active without further study, Jacobi said. He noted, however, that all of the faults that have been identified so far are intracontinental fault zones, most of which are characterized by very sporadic seismic activity.

"Most other intracontinental faults do seem to be seismically capable of large magnitude events," said Jacobi. "Because these faults are also intracontinental in nature, they too, could be capable of large-magnitude events."

Jacobi has about $1 million in research funding, primarily from the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Media Contact Information

Ellen Goldbaum
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Medicine
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