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Cold temperatures believed to have caused frost quakes in Northeast Ohio

By Bob Downing
Beacon Journal staff writer

Some in Northeast Ohio whose homes have rattled following a big boom in the night may have experienced a rare “frost quake” thanks to the crazy-cold weather.

The frigid temperatures are believed to have triggered the rare natural phenomena known as cryoseisms that produce ground shaking and noises similar to earthquakes.

But it is difficult to document whether this week’s record cold actually produced any frost quakes, said Thomas Schmidlin, a weather expert, author and geography professor at Kent State University.

“They are real… but it’s almost impossible to say if any have occurred around here,” he said.

Conditions in Northeast Ohio appear to have been suitable for frost quakes to be triggered, he said. Frost quakes are very localized and typically occur between midnight and dawn — the coldest part of the night.

The quakes may not be felt more than a few hundred yards away as they don’t release much energy, but they can cause a loud boom and shakes.

The mini quakes are caused by sudden deep freezing of the ground, especially if the soil is saturated with rain water. The frozen soils then expand and crack.

They typically occur in the first cold snap of the year when the temperature drops from above freezing to below zero, particularly if there is no snow cover to insulate the ground.

There is a fairly good chance that such frost quakes occurred in the last few days in Ohio, said Michael Hansen, coordinator of the Ohio Seismic Network for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

But such quakes are so localized they do not show up on seismic equipment.

There is a good chance that Northeast Ohio experienced such frost quakes, he said.

“It sounds logical… and is a good explanation,” he said of reports from Northeast Ohio residents that they heard a loud boom and their homes shook. “That’s probably what some people are experiencing.”

A major frost quake was reported in southwest Ohio in February 2011. It was reported in Miami and Darke counties in Ohio and Randolph County in Indiana.

Ohio also had frost quakes in 2007 near Newark, Hansen said.

Such quakes sometimes occur on the south side of houses where snow or ice thaws in sunlight and then refreezes at night, he said.

People are more likely to hear creaking houses due to the deep freeze, Schmidlin said.

Many wood joints are apt to move one-eighth of an inch because of the cold making wood shrink slightly and the result is strange noises at night as the wood contracts, he said.

“Cold can do weird things,” he said.

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