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Highlights from a Palm Springs Gathering

Each year, the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) gathers some 500 earthquake experts in the Southern California desert to check in with each other. They share research from the past year and set goals for next year’s research. They introduce new graduate students to future colleagues and collaborators. They hear talks by renowned seismologists and up-and-coming computer modelers. They invite international researchers to share insights from other earthquake-prone regions that could be applied to Southern California. And, ultimately, they formulate together research priorities for the SCEC collaboration in the coming year.

A major recurring theme of this year was the #RidgecrestEarthquake! Here, new Center Director Yehuda Ben-Zion is giving shout-outs to all the responders, and previewing all the good stuff (sessions, talks, posters) to come! Photo Credit: Gareth Funning, UC Riverside.

The 29th such annual collaboration meeting, SCEC2019, kicked off on Sunday Sept 8, 2019 with a presentation by Distinguished Speaker Steven Day, Emeritus Professor of Seismology at San Diego State University, whose talk Beyond elasticity in ground motion simulations reflected his experience of over 30 years working on the problem of understanding complex ground motions. SCEC2019’s plenary sessions began on Monday morning with an introduction from newly-appointed SCEC Director Yehuda Ben-Zion, USC Professor of Earth Sciences, who emphasized the need for more observations near major faults before and during significant earthquakes. The formal program over the next three days included plenary talks ranging from post-earthquake reconnaissance to the latest seismic detection and forecasting methods, as well as the boundaries of SCEC’s natural laboratory extending to Baja California and offshore, and a panel discussion on What is a Fault (Zone)? (The complete SCEC2019 Program, Proceedings and talk presentations are now available online at: www.scec.org/meetings/2019/am.) The plenary sessions have always been punctuated by lively Q&A, but the introduction of some new accessibility features for attendees this year brought it to a new level. These included auto-captioning of presentations, “Catchbox” throwable microphones to capture audience input, online question submission, and a livestream of the presentation slides so participants could view the main screen on their own devices.

A recurring topic at SCEC2019 was the July 2019 Ridgecrest earthquake sequence, which ended an almost 20-year “drought” of big earthquakes in southern California, and highlighted again the highly complex nature of earthquakes. As the Ridgecrest sequence developed, many federal, state, and local agencies worked together with scientists and engineers from academia and other organizations to coordinate field investigations and share observations and information at the California Earthquake Clearinghouse and elsewhere. While the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the California Geological Survey (CGS) were responsible for coordinating the field response to this earthquake sequence, SCEC focused on getting our academic-based scientists funds and logistical support to participate in the response by means of a grant under the National Science Foundation (NSF) RAPID program, which is designed for this exact kind of scenario. SCEC researchers also contributed to the NSF-Sponsored Geotechnical Extreme Event Reconnaissance (GEER) Association response to the Ridgecrest earthquakes. At SCEC2019, a special NEHRP Agency Coordination Workshop on the July 4-5, 2019 Ridgecrest Earthquake Sequence on Sunday afternoon, brought together all stakeholders from the research community to plan future scientific studies based on all these data and observations collected.

Co-Director Greg Beroza presented the 2019 SCEC Distinguished Service Award to Dr. Meghan Miller of UNAVCO. Photo Credit: Jay Patton, CGS.

Kate Scharer, Research Geophysicist at USGS, who serves as the NEHRP Investigations Coordinator for the Ridgecrest earthquake sequence, also delivered a fun talk for beginners on Monday night, Who, Where, When — Adventures and Discoveries at Ridgecrest, about the challenges of collecting perishable data (in this case, when a large portion of your study area happens to be on a Naval Air Weapons Station). Dr. Scharer’s talk was a highlight of the Monday dinner program, where SCEC also thanked the many community members who served on its formal Leadership (Board of Directors, Science Planning Committee, Advisory Council, CEO Planning Committee) in 2019. Meghan Miller, President of UNAVCO, was presented with the 2019 SCEC Distinguished Service Award. In addition to many other contributions to the earthquake research community, Dr. Miller served on the SCEC Advisory Council for ten years, the last three as its Chair. The SCEC community also extended a warm welcome to its students, early career scientists, and first-time attendees, inviting them to stand and be recognized.

SCEC2019 saw the return of the twice daily poster sessions, a highlight of every SCEC annual meeting, popularly understood as where the important science happens. A total of 320 posters were on display from numerous disciplines, including a special section dedicated to the 65 posters featuring initial studies of the Ridgecrest sequence. Poster authors were invited to present their work on the main stage during the Monday afternoon Poster Lightning Talks, which featured many early career scientists and first-time attendees. These posters and lightning talks were viewed by all participants in person, on stage and online — and several were voted the SCEC2019 People’s Choice for Best Lightning Talk (124 and 181), Best Visual Presentation (230), Best Science Story (217), and Best Overall Presentation (175 and 213).

SCEC2019 featured 320 posters from the SCEC community, including many early career and first-time attendees. Photo Credit: @GeoSpaceLatinx and Jascha Polet, CPP.

As always, the SCEC Annual Meeting provided a venue for several smaller group activities with a narrower focus but a huge impact. On Saturday and Sunday before the main event, there were four separate technical workshops, each of which was proposed by a SCEC researcher and funded as part of the 2019 science collaboration plan. These workshops focused on SCEC’s Community Velocity Model, Community Geodetic Model, Collaboratory for the Study of Earthquake Predictability, and explored Fragile Geologic Features. The SCEC Board, PC, CEO PC and AC all held meetings to manage the Center’s business and prepare for the 2020 science collaboration plan. Sunday afternoon saw the return of the popular Science Communication Workshop, hosted by Jason Ballmann and Mark Benthien of the SCEC Communication, Education, and Outreach program. Gabriela Noriega, SCEC’s Manager of Experiential Learning and Career Advancement, organized a Research Mentor Training Workshop Sunday morning, hosted the popular Monday “Breakfast Club” mixer for students and mentors, and recruited early career researchers to give Poster Lightning Talks — all activities launched by the SCEC Transitions Program at the annual meetings. Dr. Noriega also worked with the SCEC summer interns to make the most of presenting their posters and meeting up with senior researchers. There were 23 undergraduate interns participating in SCEC2019 - 5 from the SURE program, which matches students one-on-one with SCEC scientists for a summer of field work, and 18 from the UseIT program, which is a team-based internship under the NSF’s REU program.

The SCEC2019 program cover featured the SCEC Community Models, a large-scale ongoing effort by SCEC’s community of researchers to develop models to help us better understand the many moving, and not-moving, parts of the earthquake system including fault geometry, stress load, ground motion velocity and more. The complexity of the earthquake system requires this kind of “crowd-sourced” approach that the SCEC science collaboration makes possible.

SCEC’s annual meeting has been a key component of its science collaboration planning since the Center began in 1991. With continuing primary funding from NSF and USGS, this model for coordinating the research community’s efforts in Southern California has been very successful. NSF has recently announced its intention to call for a new open competition for an earthquake research center. This is an opportunity for the SCEC community to reinvent itself—to think big about the scope of its collaboration. Even as SCEC releases the 2020 Request for Proposals that was refined during SCEC2019, they will be soliciting input from the research community for the next phase for the Center. Whatever the future holds, there will surely be many more desert gatherings.