June 5, 2009

Survey airplane to scan desert details

Flights to collect seismic, groundwater data

By EUNICE LEE, staff writer
Desert Dispatch

In 1992, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists used this airplane, specially equipped with a magnetometer (white boom at rear of aircraft), to measure variations in the Earth's magnetic field. The USGS uses such aircraft to study geologic hazards, mineral resources, and environmental problems throughout the United States. (USGS)

If you happen to see an airplane flying lower than usual over areas of the High Desert in the coming month, don’t be alarmed, say officials from the United States Geological Survey.

The USGS will be conducting low-level flights in a survey project to gather data on seismic fault lines, magnetic fields, ground water flow and other geological measurements starting Saturday, according to Vicki Langenheim, a geophysicist for the USGS based in Menlo Park.

“We’re basically using it to establish a geological framework for the area,” said Langenheim.

For one month, a small aircraft will cruise between Fort Irwin and the Marine Corps Center in Twentynine Palms’ restricted airspace at speeds of 180 mph to 190 mph at 1,000 feet above ground, said Langenheim.

The flights will pass over areas near Barstow, Ludlow, Baker and the Mojave National Preserve, according to the USGS press release. The plane will make one to two trips per day for about five hours at a time during daylight hours, Langenheim noted.

Langenheim said the flights shouldn’t bother residents too much since the small two-engine airplane will fly at constant speeds and won’t be throttling up or making sudden loud noises.

A magnetometer, which looks like a six- to seven-foot-long pole, will be attached to the back end of the plane.

Langenheim said that collecting data on seismic fault lines will help scientists learn more about how earthquakes happen as well as locate groundwater in the desert.

“It’s kind of the building blocks for doing these kind of predictive studies,” she said.

The USGS recently finished a survey flight along the central coast of California that was scheduled to last two months, according to Spokeswoman Marisa Lubeck.

The last time a survey was conducted in the Mojave Desert area was in the early 1980s, according to Langenheim.