April 13, 2004

"Earthquakes - When, Where, and Why?"

Dr. David P. Schwartz


U.S. Geological Survey

A leading earthquake geologist, Dr. Schwartz is credited with having pushed forward the newly developing fields of earthquake geology and paleoseismology (the study of prehistorical seismic events.) One of his major contributions is the characteristic earthquake recurrence model, which has become a cornerstone of many seismic hazard analyses. He currently heads the San Francisco Bay Area Earthquake Hazards Project and he co-chaired the Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities that issued the 2003 Bay Area 30-year earthquake forecast.

During the discussion period, Dr. Schwartz presented the history of earthquake prediction and stressed that in the 1980's it became clear that short-term prediction research was not going to work.  Shortly after the U.S., both China and Japan abandoned their prediction programs.  The USGS started focusing on long-term phenomena and research evolved toward the pursuit of "conditional probabilities."  This research led to the publication in 1998 of the study covering the dynamic fault model of the Bay Area, which was reissued in 2003. 

Dr. Schwartz showed the group a number of documents and maps.  One of them was an original copy of the atlas that accompanied the Lawson report on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  Dr. Schwartz had found it by change at an antique book dealer's who was ready to cut it into more marketable single plates.  He also distributed earthquake readiness pamphlets and a list of web sites.  This information and much more can be accessed on-line at http://quake.usgs.gov or http://earthquake.usgs.gov.  

A question was asked about the parallels to be drawn between government and public response to disasters such as the September 11 attacks and devastating earthquakes.  Dr. Schwartz noted that there is a valid parallel to be made, especially in view of the shrinking budget devoted to earthquake research in the U.S. and the inevitability of such seismic events.  Dr. Schwartz asked the group if anybody had any idea of the size of the USGS earthquake research budget.  Three people volunteered: $2.6 million, $100 million, and $1.95.  Dr. Schwartz joked that the latter was closer to the truth.  He argued that the current budget is grossly inadequate at only $49 million (the price of one wing of a stealth bomber!)  This budget has not been increased since 1990 and is thus decreasing in real terms every year.  The USGS team involved in earthquake research is half as large as it was ten years ago and at this rate it will disappear in 10 years.  "Tell your congressman," he urged.
Photo credit: Barbara Murphy-Wesley, Roche Palo Alto.