Colin Kaminski

WEDNESDAY - SEPTEMBER 05, 2012 - NAPA, CA - Three years ago, Colin Kaminski signed up for a seismograph through the U.S. Geological Survey's NetQuakes program. A few weeks ago he got a call asking if he was still interested in having one installed at Downtown Joe's Brewery and Restaurant, where Kaminski is the brewmaster. The small blue box was installed in the subfloor of the building, where it monitors seismic activity. J.L. Sousa/Register

J.L. Sousa/Register

Since August, Downtown Joe’s has been serving more than pub fare and drinks. It also has been providing earthquake data to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) via a small seismograph that was installed two weeks ago.

Three years ago, brewmaster Colin Kaminski applied online to host a USGS unit. The call that his application had been accepted came “out of the blue,” he said. “I’d completely forgot about it.”

In 2009, at a time when Downtown Joe’s was seismically retrofitting its building, Kaminski researched on the Web how to build a seismograph of his own. One website included a link to the USGS NetQuakes site, which seeks volunteers to allow the USGS to install small seismographs at their homes or businesses to collect data.

On a whim, he submitted an application to have a seismograph placed at Downtown Joe’s.

The blue box, slightly smaller than 8 by 10 inches and 6.5 inches tall, has been mounted to the brewpub’s foundation, out of customers’ view.

When it senses earth movement, information is sent to the USGS via the Internet.

According to the USGS website, the seismograph could be triggered by quakes as small as magnitude 3 if the epicenter was located close enough to the unit.

When data is sent to the USGS, which takes about one minute, it can be compared to data from other locations to determine the size of the quake, or if there was an earthquake at all.

“Our data analysis here can tolerate lots of false triggers,” said Jim Luetgert, a geophysicist with the USGS. “It can decipher whether someone tripped over it or it’s an earthquake.”

So far, the Downtown Joe’s seismograph hasn’t picked up any seismic events, although it was set off three times during installation, Kaminski said.

The data collected from each seismograph can be viewed for 30 days on the USGS website. Additionally, the information is sent to ShakeMaps, a feature on the USGS website that shows where earthquakes occur and their magnitude.

If the earthquake’s magnitude is greater than about 5, the seismograms will be used to figure out the fault displacement caused during the shake.

The USGS will also use the data for research purposes, Luetgert said, adding that Downtown Joe’s is a good location because it’s in a business district with a density of buildings that could be affected in a severe quake.

“We’re interested in seeing how the ground is responding in places we really care about, where the buildings are,” Luetgert said.

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The Downtown Joe’s location was of particular interest to the USGS because it’s next to the Napa River, with a history of landfills in the area, Kaminski said. In a big quake, “they want to see if the soil liquifies,” he said.

Records of how the earth moves during quakes can be used by engineers to construct stronger buildings, the USGS said on its website. Similarly, the data retrieved in the boxes can be used to understand why some structures fail during shaking.

The USGS began installing units at volunteered locations roughly five years ago as a means to gather more data while keeping costs down, Luetgert said. Each site uses the property owner’s Internet connection to transmit data.

So far, 384 NetQuakes units have been installed throughout America, and a “smattering” of other units outside the country, Luetgert said. The unit at Downtown Joe’s is Napa’s first but there are 11 potential locations in the area that are being considered, officials said.

Kaminski’s greatest hobby isn’t earthquakes but sunquakes, or helioseismology, the study of wave oscillations on the sun.

A solar flare “makes the sun ring,” Kaminski said. By studying these solar events, “scientists are mapping the interior of the sun.”

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