The massive earthquake that hit Haiti last week has devastated the region, and captured the world's attention as relief efforts continue underway. Via Symmetry Breaking, I learned that the Tevatron accelerator at Fermilab actually detected the quake, despite being 2500 miles away — making it the world's most expensive seismic detector. Per Symmetry:
They had seen squiggles like these before–during a 2007 quake in Mexico, a 2006 quake in New Zealand, and earthquakes that triggered deadly tsunamis in Sumatra in 2005 and Indonesia in 2004. The readings came from sensors on underground magnets that steer particles around the four-mile Tevatron ring. They record vibrations too tiny for people at the laboratory to feel, including seismic waves from distant earthquakes. Big spikes usually mean big trouble somewhere in the world.
The sensors in question actually are low-resolution seismometers, so the sensitivity isn't surprising. The Tevatron crew monitors such activity fairly closely, because even though the tremors detected are so tiny, they are more than sufficient to disrupt the delicate measurements made at the laboratory.
Meanwhile, Physics Today has an excellent description of the science behind the Haitian earthquake — the region is home to "a highly complex tangle of tectonic faults " — detailing the factors that turned it into a "perfect storm" of devastation:
According to Jian Lin, a geophysicist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), even though the quake was "large but not huge," there were three factors that made it particularly devastating: First, it was centered just 10 miles southwest of the capital city, Port-au-Prince; second, the quake was shallow–only about 10–15 kilometers below the land's surface; third, and more importantly, many homes and buildings in the economically poor country were not built to withstand such a force and collapsed or crumbled.