Based on Interviews With Professionals Using Science in the Workplace
Paleoseismologists study geologic records to learn about earthquakes that happened thousands of years ago and then use that data to create models to forecast the probability of future earthquakes.
“It is a wide-open field,” says Chris Goldfinger, a paleoseismologist at Oregon State
University in Corvallis, “because a lot of cities around the world are sitting on time bombs [active fault lines].”
My job is to assess hazards in fault areas in cities. Cascadia [the Pacific Northwest] is a prime example—no one had any idea there was a gigantic fault below Portland and Seattle, and now no one is sure what to do, because the cost of doing anything is in the billions or trillions of dollars. I look at geologic evidence such as offsets in the ground, landslides, or submarine landslide deposits. I take core samples from such active fault areas as Cascadia or San Andreas in the United States or others in Japan or Sumatra. This “ring of fire” around the Pacific Ocean has the easiest-to-find earthquake signals, which help us understand other fault areas.
I spend a month in the field at a time and collect about 100 core samples. For those deposits triggered by earthquakes, I try to figure out the timing, magnitude, and origin of the quakes. I use that data to build a time-and-space framework showing how a big fault behaved over long periods. The resulting map looks like a flipbook of a region with each frame showing a different earthquake.
To understand the nature of an earthquake threat, we provide a long history so people can know the probabilities and we can better determine our course of action. I use modeling software to estimate dates and to create earthquake-type movement in a representation of the seafloor. Other software simulates the effects of a tsunami moving to land. I model turbidity currents to see where sand will get deposited.
Training and helping graduate students is a big part of my job. My favorite part of the work is discovering something new and cool. It still amazes me how much you can learn about the big-picture things that happened to the Earth by poking around in dirt. The part I like least is politics. If I discover that a hazard affects people, it instantly becomes political, because developers are now saddled with an earthquake problem.
In high school, I saw geology students packing shovels in a station wagon, heading to Death Valley. It looked like fun, and it was stunning to me that you could gain an understanding of what you’re standing on and where mountains came from, just by looking around and observing things. In college, I got a dual degree in geology and oceanography in the mid-1970s. Plate tectonics had just been discovered 10 years earlier, and all the big-picture concepts about the Earth had just come into focus.
After I graduated, I started building a sailboat with the aim of sailing around the world. Then I talked to a neighbor who was doing interesting work in geology, and I decided to go back to geology and combine that with my interests in boats and the sea. When I graduated with my PhD in geology from Oregon State University, the university hired me to work in the school of oceanography, which recently merged with the geology department.
I got interested in studying the past. But I realized that it’s also important to understand what is going on today. That’s why I began studying subduction zone earthquakes and tsunamis.
Knowledge, skills, and training needed.
Paleoseismology is multi-disciplinary and requires a good background in geology and marine geology. The latter is not a subset of regular geology; the principles are very different. For the marine work, it’s good to know about remote sensing, weather, and seamanship, and it’s handy to know how to build instruments and repair things. Because you go out on a big expensive ship with 50 to 70 people at a time, it requires a lot of teamwork and logistics.
Advice for students.
Get a broad grounding in all the necessary subjects. Gain some computer skills also.
BS in geology and oceanography from Humboldt State University; PhD in geology from Oregon State University
On the web:
Seismologist, structural geologist, paleoclimatologist
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