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Quake in Washington County? Not likely, geologist says

July 24, 2010|By MARIE GILBERT
  • Alan Hedges talks about earthquakes Saturday at Discovery Station at Hagerstown.
Marie Gilbert, Staff Writer

Geologists have long known about California's vulnerability to the rumbling earth.

But is Washington County sitting on top of a seismic time bomb?

According to Alan Hedges, it's possible. But not probable.

"Earthquakes can occur anywhere," Hedges said. "Rocks under the Earth's crust are constantly moving. But it's doubtful we could have the kind of earthquakes that occur in other parts of the world. This isn't a particularly active area."

Hedges is an amateur geologist who became fascinated with fossils and rocks about 10 years ago.

"It's a hobby," he said -- one that has developed into more than a passing interest.

He can tell you about the Devonian Period, when this area was under 300 feet of water. He can tick off facts and figures about the Earth's crust and the ocean floor.

And he can tell you what causes earthquakes.

Hedges was the guest speaker Saturday afternoon during a special program at Discovery Station at Hagerstown.

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The topic of earthquakes drew an interested crowd, many of whom had felt the shimmies and shakes of a recent earthquake whose epicenter was near Washington, D.C.

The timing of the program was a bit of a coincidence, said B. Marie Byers, executive director of the local museum.

"Alan and I were talking a while ago and we both thought earthquakes would be a good topic for a Saturday Plus program," she said. "I put it on the calendar, never knowing how important it would be."

Hedges said rocks beneath the surface of the Earth constantly are moving, so earthquakes can happen anywhere at any time.

Across Maryland, he said, seismic reports show activity, "but we're not sensitive enough to feel it. Usually, they're 1.1, 1.2 magnitudes. They're very small and we usually don't feel anything under a 3. We go through the day having no idea things are moving."

Hedges said there are fault lines in this area, including one that runs under his home in Cavetown.

Faults are separations or fractures in rock, Hedges said. When the tectonic plates in the Earth's crust slide against each other, an earthquake occurs. The force applied dictates the strength of the quake.

Hedges said earthquakes in this part of the world are possible in Canada, Maine and even Kentucky.

"Locally, we have several faults, including Beaver Creek Fault and South Mountain Fault, but these are not active," he said.

Hedges said he didn't want people to leave being scared, but rather, informed.

"There are faults everywhere and no area is immune," he said. "But some regions of the world are much more susceptible than Washington County."

Helene Cain and her family were among the people who attended Saturday's program.

Cain, who lives in Frederick, Md., said she and her daughters felt the recent earthquake outside of Washington, D.C., and called it "surreal."

"It woke us up," she said. "But we didn't think it was an earthquake until we turned on the television and realized that was exactly what it was."

Having experienced an earthquake, Cain said her family decided to sit in on the talk to learn more.

"It was very interesting," she said. "And perfect timing. Nothing should surprise me anymore. So I shouldn't be surprised that we felt an earthquake."

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