Temblors Put SMU Seismologists in Spotlight

Earthquakes across North Texas had residents all shaken up in January, but city officials from Dallas and Irving knew just who to call: the SMU seismology team.

SMU’s seismology team, part of the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, is made up of four leading faculty members and an assortment of other experts, including Brian Stump and Heather DeShon.

SMU’s relationship to area municipalities in this way is not new — the department also looked into a slew of quakes in the Azle area in 2008, so it has been monitoring the region with seismographs ever since. But the activity in the last few months has caused the staff to rev up its efforts.

“We have a history of putting seismograph stations out to monitor and perform studies with graduate students. Basically prior to Christmas, we noticed increases in Irving at a 2.5 level,” DeShon said. “We started talking about putting more stations out to see what’s happening.”

In late November, a 3.3-magnitude earthquake hit Irving. SMU deployed one extra seismograph then, before the city asked for more installations.

Finally on Jan. 4, two earthquakes were enough to pique almost everyone’s curiosity.

“We already were working with emergency managers to monitor the site around the city of Irving, but everything kicked into high gear when that 3.5 happened, followed hours later by a 3.6,” she said.

In total, SMU will maintain 11 stations from this point continuously. But in addition to that, the quakes necessitated a total of 20 seismographic stations throughout the area. Many of those were temporary and equipped to log information for 10 days.
“It did help us get the initial 10 days of aftershock,” DeShon said. “It’s incredibly valuable information.”

SMU’s experts have been working in their particular areas of knowledge to analyze all the data and prepare a report for Dallas and Irving officials to review. On Feb. 6, Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings met with media to discuss SMU’s released report.

“I want to say thank you to SMU. Their job is research and teaching of students, and their ability to move this quickly was a great thing,” Rawlings said. “There’s a question of what should these two cities have on an ongoing basis. Dr. Stump is one of the premier seismologists in the country and has a great reputation, so it’s fortunate to have that resource.”

Normally, SMU’s team would prepare a peer-reviewed study — a process that takes longer time. The report requested by the municipalities was considered “preliminary,” in that it was released prior to going through the full, peer-review process.

“We had to issue a document pretty quickly after putting stations out,” DeShon said. “We will continue to monitor the situation. So scientifically, we just scratched the surface. Regardless of what transpires with what the cities ask us to do, we’ll just move forward like we have with every other sequence.”

Though the study was not yet able to pinpoint an exact cause for the quakes nor “causative fault” — despite rumors of oil and gas interference — DeShon expects the findings to go through a proper peer-review assessment.

“As the faculty at SMU, we live in Dallas. Most of us actually live in the city, so we want to help our community understand what’s going on,” DeShon said. “That’s one of our driving motivators.”

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