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Southern Utah's red rock towers are in 'constant motion,' study reveals

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Posted at 12:02 PM, Feb 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-16 14:02:21-05

You won't see it no matter how closely you watch, but new research from the University of Utah reveals, southern Utah's red rock towers are constantly on the move.

According to their findings, the red rock towers seen in Southern Utah and across the Colorado Plateau are always in motion, vibrating to their own unique rhythms.

The rock towers and arches, according to University of Utah experts, twist and swing in reaction to distant earthquakes, wind, and even ocean waves.

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Researchers prepare to place seismographs on a rock structure.

Their most recent study aggregates a first-of-its-kind dataset to show this dynamic feature of the stone pillars.

"The frequencies at which the rocks vibrate and the ways they deform during that vibration, can be largely predicted using the same mathematics that describe how beams in built structures resonate," the University said in a news release. "Knowing these properties is crucial to understanding the seismic stability of a rock tower and its susceptibility to hazardous vibrations. But it’s tough to get the needed data, partly because getting to the base of the towers often requires traveling through treacherous terrain – and then someone has to climb them to place a seismometer at the top."

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A climber installs a seismograph on 'Wicked Witch' rock formation in southern Utah.

University of Utah researchers have now measured the dynamic properties of 14 rock towers and fins in Utah, providing a unique dataset with a variety of heights and tower shapes, thanks to the cooperation of expert climbers.

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A seismograph takes measurements on top of a rock tower in southern Utah.

“This ability to make predictions about a tower’s fundamental frequency using just the tower’s width, height, and material properties is powerful because that means someone doesn’t necessarily have to climb a 300-foot (100 m) tower with a seismometer to get this information,” said lead author Riley Finnegan, a doctoral student in geophysics. “And knowing this information is important for any assessments related to the seismic stability of a tower or potential vibration damage.”

The new study has been published Seismological Research Letters.