September/October 2007

SSA 101

Over the course of the past year, the Seismological Society of America has been observing the Society’s centennial. Founded in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, SSA will turn 101 this coming November 20th. From its beginning, SSA has been dedicated to the advancement of the scientific understanding of earthquakes, a discipline that can hardly be said to have existed in the United States a hundred years ago. Equally important to the founders were the promotion of earthquake risk reduction and education of the public about earthquake hazards, as any of you who have read the Society’s objectives (see inside the front cover of Seismological Research Letters or http://www.seismosoc.org/about/purpose.html) will know. In this brief commentary, I’d like to reflect on where we have come in the past 100 years in addressing our objectives, and on the challenges that we face today.

The 1906 earthquake and fire catalyzed a small group of scientists and public-minded citizens to join together “for the acquisition and diffusion of knowledge concerning earthquakes and allied phenomena, and to enlist the support of the people and the government in the attainment of these ends” (see Perry Byerly’s 1964 history of SSA in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 54 (6): 1,723–1,741). The early membership rosters naturally reflected the strong local interest in the California earthquake. But by 1911, the first year that BSSA was published, the membership, then 362 strong, had already become international, with 20 countries represented. Today, our nearly 2,000 members hail from 69 countries and include earth scientists, engineers, risk managers, and allied professionals. As the SSA has grown, so have the Society’s interests, which now include tsunamis, volcanoes, explosions, nuclear test ban verification, Earth structure, tectonics, and earth science education, in addition to the original focus on earthquakes.

The centennial commemoration kicked off on the earthquake’s centennial on April 18 with our 2006 annual meeting, the “100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference,” held jointly with the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, and in partnership with 61 cosponsoring organizations from around the world. The conference brought together more than 3,800 “earthquake professionals” from a wide range of disciplines—scientists, engineers, emergency managers, planners, educators, government officials, and elected representatives. In many ways, this conference returned SSA to its roots as a society of professionals concerned with the hazards that earthquakes pose to society and the possibilities of reducing earthquake risk by promoting research, partnering with fellow stakeholders, and educating the public and government officials. Conference highlights included plenary sessions that explored the lessons from the past, assessed the present dangers, and pointed to future challenges and opportunities. Another centerpiece was the reassessment of the 1906 earthquake and construction of impact scenarios were it to recur today. A special section of the Bulletin with many of these papers is scheduled for publication in 2008.

Only by working together can we sustain the progress achieved over the past century and begin to attack the growing threat that the natural hazards we study pose to an increasingly urbanized and exposed world.

Having served on the conference steering committee during the three years of planning for the meeting along with SSA Executive Director Susan Newman, Lind Gee, and SSA Meeting Co-chairs Carol Prentice and Peggy Hellweg, it was deeply satisfying not only to see so many of you in San Francisco but also to see the spotlight that the meeting cast on our science through the extensive reporting on the conference in the local, national, and world press. Our success in getting the word out was due in no small part to the planning and preparations made by the representatives of SSA, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, and the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on the organizing committee and the vision of General Chair Chris Poland. Equally important was the engagement of nearly 300 groups, including SSA, in a complementary grassroots organization, the 1906 Earthquake Centennial Alliance.

The Alliance (http://1906centennial.org) brought together academic and research institutions, museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, businesses, and the media to commemorate the event, highlight a century of progress in earthquake science, and spread the word about how to prepare and live more safely with earthquake risk. Alliance activities spanned a phenomenal range, from the world premieres of a ballet and a symphony commemorating the event to exhibits on the event and the times, documentaries and lectures, and even a public “trench party” in the Hayward fault in the City of Fremont. A new, northern California edition of Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country was another major accomplishment. More than 2 million copies have been distributed of this 32-page earthquake preparedness primer, which is now available in English and Spanish as well as several Asian languages including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean.

The partnerships reflected in both the 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference and the 1906 Earthquake Centennial Alliance serve to remind us that no one group, organization, or profession owns the earthquake problem. Only by working together can we sustain the progress achieved over the past century and begin to attack the growing threat that the natural hazards we study pose to an increasingly urbanized and exposed world.

At the 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference, we proposed an action agenda for Managing Risk in Earthquake Country organized around three themes: 1) develop a culture of preparedness; 2) invest in reducing losses; and 3) ensure resiliency and recovery. These themes grew out of extensive discussions with our fellow “earthquake professionals” and were expanded into a Top Ten Actions list, supported by a call for specific steps that need to be taken (http://www.1906eqconf.org/mediadocs/managingrisk.pdf). It wasn’t easy to put a call for more research or better funding well down on the list in developing the action agenda, but in the end I am convinced it was the right thing to do, simply because we’ve learned a thing or two since 1906. For example, we hardly needed last July’s Niigata Chuetsu-oki earthquake in Japan to demonstrate that unreinforced buildings continue to pose a life-threatening risk in earthquake country. Challenging local governments and engineering professionals to move beyond identifying dangerous types of buildings and identifying actual buildings that are most likely to collapse moves beyond business as usual.

SSA marked the day of the actual 100th anniversary of its founding with the third William B. Joyner Memorial Lecture by Norm Abrahamson and reception at Pacific Gas and Electric Company in San Francisco. True to our roots, Norm’s lecture, “The Seismology-Engineering Interface: The Need for Two- Way Flow of Information,” emphasized gaps in our scientific knowledge that when filled would have a major impact on earthquake engineering and ultimately public safety. One of these gaps, the strength of near-source ground motions in very large magnitude earthquakes, will surely be a topic of discussion as revisions to the U.S. National Seismic Hazard Map go forward. The new empirical ground-motion relations developed in the PEER/Lifelines Next Generation of Attenuation Relations project reduce the level of near-fault motions at large magnitude relative to the earlier relations. They are based upon an exhaustive evaluation of essentially all the near-source seismograms that have been collected in the history of our science. There is, however, just one recording within 10 km of the causative fault for M ≥ 7.8 in the database and no observations for M ≥ 8. Clearly, there is a critical need for data to test these models; data that require an international effort to gather, lest we repeat the disappointment of gathering no near-fault data as was the case for the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake.

You might be pleasantly surprised how much influence a thoughtful letter to your elected representative can have on the legislative process.

By all accounts, the 2007 SSA meeting in Hawaii was also a very successful gathering, in no small part due to the work of Meeting Chair Patricia Cooper and her organizing committee of Cecily Wolfe, Milton Garces, Rob Dunn, and Tara Hicks, plus a terrific Joyner Lecture by Gail Atkinson, “Predicting Earthquake Ground Motions: Myths and Mysteries.” Like the 2006 meeting, a connection between SSA and the host community had already been made. Only six months before, the Kona Coast of Hawaii was rocked by the 15 October 2006 M 6.7 Kiholo Bay earthquake. While our conference hotel escaped damage, a number of significant historic buildings and one major hotel did not. Harry Kim, mayor of the County of Hawaii, addressed the meeting and reported that near real-time earthquake information was extremely valuable to his office in mounting an emergency response, and so he came to us well-informed of the value that seismology can be to society. The mayor also challenged us to make a greater effort to communicate with nonscientists and in particular the end-users of our research, not only to inform them about the things that we know, but also to learn from them about the challenges they face in doing their jobs so that we might work together to find solutions to real-world problems. The actions he encouraged us to take aren’t that different from those set down 101 years ago, are they?

As I think about the future of SSA, I have no real concerns for the science. We have a big agenda before us that has grown in unanticipated directions over the past century while remaining of vital importance to society. Sure, we’re all at times apprehensive about funding for research, the education of students and support for the infrastructure it all makes possible. This is nothing new. Andrew Lawson addressed these same issues in the very first article published in BSSA. What was true then is true now: If you would like to see a different course set by your government, let them hear from you. SSA will continue to seek to influence legislation at the federal level that touches on the Society’s objectives, and I welcome your input on the issues and positions that we advocate. As members, I believe that each of us has an obligation to speak up when issues arise at home, whether that means the national level for those of you living in one of the other 68 countries with SSA members, or at the state and local level in the United States. You might be pleasantly surprised how much influence a thoughtful letter to your elected representative can have on the legislative process.

I would also like to see the SSA become more engaged in promotion of risk-reduction measures. As I look back on this past year and a half of centennial activities, I find it remarkable how many connections were made or renewed between SSA members and the consumers of our science. As we look ahead, how will these connections be sustained? How can they be improved and expanded? We’ve got a number of worthwhile activities underway, such as the IRIS-SSA Distinguished Lecture Series, the EduQuakes column in SRL, and our participation in many American Geological Institute outreach programs. But I think we could do much more to engage those who can reduce risk and enhance public safety. I’d welcome your input on new ways that SSA might make this happen.

Finally, I want to challenge each of you to take just one small step outside your routine in the coming year to make one new connection within the broader community where you live and work. Perhaps you will write a letter to your elected representative expressing your views on the science you know and why it’s important, or give a talk to a local civic organization. Perhaps it will be just to take to lunch someone who should be applying our science. Whatever you decide to do, I know that you will find it rewarding. Let me know how it went. I look forward to hearing from you.

William L. Ellsworth, President
Seismological Society of America
Email- president [at] seismosoc.org


To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, you may contact the SRL editor by sending e-mail to <lastiz [at] ucsd.edu>.




Posted: 31 August 2007