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Technology flies overhead to detect earthquake activity below

Published: Jul. 12, 2012 at 8:47 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 17, 2012 at 9:33 PM EDT
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LOUISA, VA (WWBT) - Last August, Virginia emerged as the epicenter of one of the largest earthquakes on the East Coast in decades. Now, central Virginia is an epicenter of geological research.

"This is all very expensive," explained Colin Terry, of Ottawa-based Sander Geophysics. Terry described the state-of-the-art equipment packed into his company's tiny plane at the Louisa County Airport.

The Canadian exploration and research firm was commissioned by the U.S. to help with the project. Millions of dollars in geo-physical equipment will be flown over Louisa, Goochland and Fluvanna Counties during the next eight to ten days. The top-secret technology, which we weren't allow to film, aims to help Virginians better brace themselves for earthquakes, like last August's 5.8 magnitude tremor. The earthquake damaged two Louisa schools beyond repair, and shook down parts of homes.

"You can't prevent an earthquake from happening, but you can be prepared for it," said Anji Shah, lead scientist for the project, headed by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Shah says the equipment will detect the fragile cracks, or faults, below the earth's surface, where tremors begin. The instruments measure changes in magnetic fields and gravitational pull. A significant variance indicates that a fault is likely present.

"What our instruments do is they can see deep. So, we can see things down 500 feet or a mile...even up to eight or nine miles. They (city officials and builders) can use that to think about building codes…and informing people on how to react during an earthquake," added Shah.

A long extension tube projecting out of the plane holds a magnetometer, which measures magnetic fields miles beneath the earth's surface, or as far as the earthquake penetrated. Other instruments will gauge gravitational pull.

"I think (our instruments) are the best, as far as actually measuring gravity from a moving airplane, which is a bit of a trick," said Terry.

Some of the instruments are being used for the first time in this country for earthquake research.

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