Seismic waves generated by aircraft impacts and building collapses at World Trade Center, New York City



Seismologists sometimes do their work of data acquisition and analysis against a tragic background. Usually, the context is fieldwork far from home, in an area subjected to the natural but sometimes devastating effects of an earthquake. But in the present case, we are in our own New York City area; that is, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, in Palisades, N.Y; and the context is inhuman actions against people and the fabric of our society.

As the appalling events of September 11 unfolded, we found that we had recorded numerous seismic signals from two plane impacts and building collapses of the two World Trade Center (WTC) towers, often at times different than those being reported elsewhere. Collapses of the two WTC towers generated large seismic waves, observed in five states and up to 428 km away The north tower collapse was the largest seismic source and had local magnitude ML 2.3. From this, we infer that ground shaking of the WTC towers was not a major contributor to the collapse or damage to surrounding buildings. But unfortunately, we also conclude that from the distance at which our own detections were made (the nearest station is 34 km away at Palisades) it is not possible to infer (with detail sufficient to meet the demands of civil engineers in an emergency situation) just what the near-in ground motions must have been.