Earthquakes in Western New York State

The earthquake record of Western New York is a significant one. Buffalo and a portion of Western New York were classified by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1951 as an area of moderate seismic risk. Western New York has experienced several noteworthy tremors, though the magnitude and frequency do not compare with California’s major fault zone.

Major earthquake zones throughout the world generally coincide with major fault zones. There are no major fault zones within the Western New York area, but the Clarendon–Linden fault in the Attica area has been the chief source of quake activity in this area. This fault is not part of a larger system of faults as is found in California; it is not as active, nor does it pose a strong threat to this area as does the San Andreas fault system to California.

Earthquakes, natural vibrations within the earth’s crust, are the result of movements of rocks below the earth’s surface. They may be caused by slippage along faults (fractures within rocks), movements of magma (liquid rock material) below the surface of the earth, unloading of overburden by quarrying operations, or man–made explosions.

The severity of an earthquake is determined by a recording of the magnitude and an assessment of the intensity. The Modified Mercalli Scale expresses intensity by Roman numerals I–XII and is based on the relative amount of resultant physical damage. Field data is gathered from individuals within the area of a recent quake; the effects of the tremor on man, structures and the earth’s surface are reported. An earthquake of intensity I on the Modified Mercalli Scale would most likely go unnoticed; a tremor of about intensity VI would probably be felt by everyone and cause slight damage; whereas, a quake of intensity XII would result in almost total destruction of buildings, objects thrown into the air and waves seen on the earth’s surface.

The magnitude of an earthquake is reported on the Richter Scale and is a measurement of the amount of energy released at the source of a quake. This data is gathered on seismographic recordings from a worldwide network of seismological stations. A minor earthquake registering a magnitude 2 on the Richter Scale is about the weakest felt by humans. Quakes of a magnitude 7 or more are classified as major. Some of the largest in the world have been measured at 8.8 or 8.9 on the Richter Scale.

Thousands of earthquakes occur every year with only a small number significant enough to cause substantial physical damage and loss of life. Several large quakes have occurred during 1976 resulting in millions of dollars in property damage and over 25 thousand individuals killed, excluding those who may have been killed in quakes in China, the Soviet Union and western New Guinea. Waverly Person of the US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Service reports that during an average year the earth can anticipate one "great" earthquake (8 magnitude on the Richter Scale or greater); 18 "major" quakes (7–7.9 magnitude); and approximately 120 "strong" tremors (6–6.9 magnitude) (Department of Interior News Release, 31 August, 1976).

The historic record of Western New York tremors began in 1857; the most recent earthquake was felt on May 25, 1995. On 12 August 1929 an earthquake in the Attica, New York area destroyed approximately 250 chimneys and several buildings were heavily damaged. This quake had an intensity of VIII on the Modified Mercalli Scale and was one of the largest to rock the Western New York area. A 100 thousand square mile area felt the force of this quake, which was of a magnitude of approximately 5.6 on the Richter Scale.

On February 23, 1939, a minor tremor took place within the Attica area registering an intensity of III. The Strohaver Science Club of Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, under the supervision of the late Dr. Austin McTigue, then assistant professor of physics, conducted months of investigation and research to establish an isoseismal map of this local quake. The indicated areas of approximate intensity suggest the degree of physical damage sustained and the impact on local residents.

Numerous seismic events have occurred in and adjacent to Western New York. This area has also felt the reports of quakes originating beyond its confines. On 28 February 1925 an earthquake originating in the St. Lawrence River Valley sent tremors ranging from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River and from Canada to South Carolina. The Buffalo Courier (1 March 1925) reported that people, panicked and frightened, rushed into the streets as buildings swayed in Buffalo and other cities throughout the affected area. This quake was felt within a 2 million square mile area and registered VIII on the Modified Mercalli Scale.

Earthquakes in Western New York & Southern Ontario, Canada
Date Time Modified Mercalli Intensity Location Latitude Longitude Affected Area (sq. mi.)
10.23.1857 15:15 VI Buffalo, NY 43.2 78.6 18,000
01.15.1858 II Nigara Falls, CA 43.1 79.1
07.06.1873 09:30 VI Ontario, CA 43 79.5 30,000
01.08.1876 16:30 II Lockport, NY 43.2 78.7
08.21.1879 03:00 V Buffalo, NY 43.2 79.2 1,300
11.12.1927 19:50 IV Niagara Falls, CA 43.1 79.0
08.12.1929 06:25 VIII Attica, NY 42.9 78.3 100,000
12.02.1929 17:14 V Attica, NY 42.8 78.3 local
12.03.1929 12:50 IV Attica, NY 42.8 78.3 local
01.17.1930 PM I Attica, NY 42.8 78.3 local
04.02.1931 IV Buffalo, NY 42.8 72.9
02.23.1939 07:00 III Attica, NY 42.8 78.2
02.26.1944 16.58 I Buffalo, NY 42.9 78.8
08.16.1955 02:35 V Attica, NY 42.9 78.3
03.27.1962 01:37 V Niagara Falls, NY 43.1 79.1
07.16.1965 06:00 IV Attica, NY 42.9 78.2 local
08.27.1965 20:57 IV Attica, NY 42.9 78.2 local
01.01.1966 08:24 VI Attica – Varysburg, NY 42.8 78.2 3,500
06.13.1967 14:09 VI Attica – Alabama, NY 42.9 78.2 3,000
08.12.1969 21:42 IV Attica, NY 42.9 78.3
From Coffman & von Hake, 1973; Buffalo Courier–Express, 1939; Niagara Mohawk Lake Erie Generating Station Report, Volume VIII, 1976

The Seismograph Station at Canisius College, officially designated station BUF, has been recording local and worldwide seismic events since February 1911. The first seismograph placed in operation at Canisius was the smoked paper Wiechert. The Wiechert instrument measured both the E–W and N– S horizontal motions of the earth. The photographic Gallitzin–Willip seismograph was added in 1930 to measure the vertical motions of a tremor. In 1946 the station acquired five Sprengnether instruments to record short period and long period vibrations in both the vertical and horizontal directions.

Currently the Canisius Seismograph Station uses a short period seismometer and pen & ink recorder from Kinemetrics to produce a paper copy of incoming seismic waves.Seismic waves detected by the five Sprengnether seismometers which are still in use, plus a Geotech seismometer, are recorded using computer software. Three of the instruments are short period and detect vertical, E–W, and N–S motion; the other three are long period and detect the three directions of motion.

Now called the Braun-Ruddick Seismograph Station, in honor of Joseph Braun – a kind benefactor– and Reverend James Ruddick – a professor of physics and director of the Station – the station records seismograms of earthquakes that have occurred locally and from as far away as the opposite side of the Earth, depending on the strength of the quake. ˜provided by Mark Castner, Canisius College

Western New York has an interesting earthquake history and will undoubtedly continue to add future seismic events to the record lists. The potential for moderately destructive quakes exists. The historic record suggests that we can expect to experience some local minor tremors again in the future.

References

  • Adapted from: Earthquakes in Western New York, Collections: Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, vol. 56, nos. 1–2, October 1976, pp.13–16. [Reproduced with the permission of the Buffalo Museum of Science.]
  • Coffman, J. L. and von Hake. C. A., eds. 1973. Earthquake History of the United States. US Dept. Commerce Pub. 41–1.
  • Newland, David Hale. 1933. Earthquakes in New York State. New York State Museum Circular 14.
  • Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation. 1976. Lake Erie Generating Station Report. Vol. III, part 76.
  • Pomeroy, Paul W. 1975. Earthquake activity in New York State. NAHO, vol. 8, no. 2.
  • Severity of an earthquake, Department of Interior News Release, 16 December 1974.
  • Six minute tremor shakes Buffalo at 9:20; no damage, Buffalo Courier, 1 March 1925.
  • Quake is classified, Buffalo Courier Express, 25 March 1939.
  • Rest easy now, folks, US made a mistake about quakes in WNY, Buffalo Evening News, 29 August 1951.
  • The quake watchers, Department of Interior News Release, 31 August 1976.