Boise State Football Fans Have Seismic Cheer

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Boise State undergrad student Andrew Nies is not a football fanatic. But when it comes to the Broncos, he makes an exception with a twist. In order to more fully appreciate the sport, he wondered if there was a way to watch a game from a scientific perspective. There is. Late last fall, the geophysics major buried broadband seismometers around Boise State’s campus just before a home game. On a chilly November day when the Broncos soundly defeated their age-old rival the University of Idaho Vandals, Nies’ gear recorded the underground waves or vibrations made by the crowd.

Turns out the Bronco faithful are enthusiastic early in the first half of the game. All that cheering, stomping and screaming tapers off as the first half comes to a close. That’s one of many findings Nies discovered. He presented his research at a gathering of some 500 seismologists at the Seismological Society of America conference. It’s happening this week in Portland, Or.

The largest spike in activity happened in the final minutes of the first half of the game when the Broncos scored a last minute kick off and Bronco touchdown. “So we see the crowd isn’t responding as much. Then there’s this build up” said Nies, “Then bam! You have this big event.”

Seismometer recording of a kickoff and Bronco touchdown at the November 2009 home game against the Vandals.
  • Boise State Geosciences department
  • Seismometer recording of a kickoff and Bronco touchdown at the November 2009 home game against the Vandals.


In the geophysical world, these “big events” actually aren’t so big. They’re micro earthquakes. Seismologists usually study these tiny tremors in volcanoes. A tiny vibration almost too small to record happens when something like a rock breaks off inside a volcano. That’s what Nies really wants to study.

“We don’t have any volcanoes here [Boise],” Nies explained, “ So I wondered what we could go out and monitor.” This was last fall about the time when the Oregon Ducks were coming to town to take on the Broncos. Nies and geophysics assistant professor, Matthew Haney, were talking about the big matchup when it struck them both. Why not record the crowd’s response using seismometers?

It didn’t happen for that game between the Broncos and the Oregon Ducks. There’s permits involved. Two foot holes to be dug for the equipment. The gear then must be buried. Volunteers are needed to jot down notes of major events, say when the cannon fires after a touchdown or the marching band performs. By the time the classic rival matchup with the Vandals rolled around, Neis and a team of 20 volunteers was ready.

The seismometers recorded kickoffs and touchdowns and also some anomalies that took Nies by surprise. “We actually figured out we recorded a magnitude 6.1 earthquake in Argentina,” he said. There was also a “little blip” in the data. Turns out it was the Vandal’s marching band as they headed toward the stadium right before the game. “We didn’t expect that or the earthquake. It was really cool to see it in the record.”

Nies isn’t the first to record the seismic activities during a football game. The University of Wisconsin and Louisiana State University have already done some similar research.

Nies still has data to analyze. He and Haney plan to submit a paper to an academic journal once their analysis is finished. They also are eyeing the Bronco’s upcoming season where the two plan to do more tests using different equipment that sense ground displacement.

In the meantime, Nies may get his wish to study micro earthquakes in volcanoes. He’s hoping to go to Iceland this summer with Haney to put seismometers in a volcano near Eyjafjallajokull. That’s the volcano that erupted earlier this month. Those plans may be put on hold. Scientists say another larger volcano usually erupts when Eyjafjallajokull does. “If that happens we might change our plans a little bit.” Nies chuckled adding, “I don’t have a say in the matter.”

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