What started as a creative ploy to see a Seahawks game morphed into a meaningful contribution to science.
Jon Connolly, webmaster at the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN), simply wanted to get tickets to see his favorite team play Saturday against the Saints. Tickets sold out fast, though, so Connolly went to his bosses with an idea: install a couple of seismological devices in CenturyLink Field to measure any activity made by stomping fans.
"We got permission through the Seahawks," Connolly says. "They loved the idea. We got ahold of them Monday and by Wednesday we were installing instruments."
Specifically, they were installing instruments in a janitor's closet behind the visitor's bench and behind a concession area on the 300 level of the stadium. Connolly and his coworkers found themselves in the odd situation of hoping for a mini-earthquake.
It's happened before. When Marshawn Lynch scored on a 67-yard touchdown run in the NFC wildcard game against the Saints in 2011, the fan ruckus registered on the PNSN's seismometer, which is located a block away from the stadium.
The tremor has become known as the "Beast Quake," after Lynch's "Beast Mode" nickname, and even though it was only the equivalent of a 2 on the Richter scale, it became the stuff of legend in the Pacific Northwest. Connolly got his wish to attend the game last weekend, and he sat in the press box hoping for another Beast Quake.
He got it.
Lynch's game-clinching 31-yard touchdown run created a fan-induced tremor nearly as large as the original. It was so strong that Connolly's boss at the University of Washington, John Vidale, published seismographs on the PNSN website and added a disclaimer on Facebook: "This is the Seahawks football game, in case anyone misinterprets these posts as dangerous earthquake activity."
You can see the graph of the second Beast Quake here, annotated from "Ball is hiked" to "Marshawn Lynch hits the hole" to "Shoves Saints cornerback Tracy Porter, knocking him five yards downfield" to "Extra-point is kicked." Connolly concludes that the stadium is the "organized seismic source" and signs off with "Go Hawks!"
Connolly actually missed a majority of the game because the website he oversees was overloaded with traffic: 120,000 page views compared to the usual 4,000 or so. He didn't care, though.
"I was smiling the whole time," he says.
The endeavor was mostly for fun, but there are actually bigger implications for seismology. The PNSN is working on creating a new scale to measure these types of tremors. Because the Richter scale is for a much different kind of geological activity, Vidale and his staff want to figure out a way to compare fan quakes – with the original Beast Quake as the standard.
"ML is Richter magnitude," Vidale says. "So maybe we can use MBQ, or 'Magnitude Beast Quake. You can put a number on how powerful the fans are." Vidale thought of the idea of having the number 12 be the standard, after the 12th Man, but he doesn't want any confusion with 12 on the Richter scale. "A 12 earthquake," he explains, "would split the Earth in half."
If this idea catches on, fans all over the country can try to beat the Beast Quake. (Of course, they would have to find some seismologists to install the devices.)
"The scale could be normalized," says researcher Doug Gibbons. "That would be really awesome."
The other, more important outcome of this is earthquake awareness. The PNSN staff wants people talking about seismology during calm times, rather than during an actual event. And the staff itself now knows a small earthquake is coming this Sunday in the NFC title game, so it can prepare in advance.
"We usually collect data and wait for there to be an earthquake," Vidale said. "Part of what we get from this exercise is to measure the character of the ground shaking. It's testing the systems we have in place."
That helps Connolly, too, as his website is sure to be bombarded in the event of not only an earthquake, but a volcano. Seahawks games are dry runs for events no one can predict but everyone needs to prepare for.
"It's a little bit of preparedness," says Gibbons. "We thought we did get the message out there last weekend. We almost quadrupled our Twitter followers."
Connolly will be back at the stadium Wednesday, adding another instrument to make three: Hawk 1, Hawk 2 and Hawk 3. He'll be at the game on Sunday, as well, ready for action in the realest sense of the word.
"I think we'll see a lot of activity," he says. "Beast Quake 3!"