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Geophysicist Ross Stein
Like all who study earthquakes, Ross Stein doesn’t want to just understand them — he wants to anticipate them. Stein, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., has investigated earthquakes from many angles: He is interested not only in where and when a quake might occur, but also in how earthquakes interact to inhibit or trigger each other, and in how they can dramatically reshape Earth’s crust.
Most recently, Stein has been working with seismologist Domenico Giardini of the Swiss Seismological Service in Zurich to convince scientists, governments and insurance companies alike of the need to create an open model for earthquake risks that encompasses data from the entire globe. With that additional data, he says, such a model — currently dubbed GeoRisk — could help scientists create earthquake forecasts that may someday be as accurate as predicting the weather.
Stein sat down with Geotimes staff writer Carolyn Gramling to talk more about GeoRisk, natural hazards documentaries, and some seismologists’ favorite earthquake.
Q: What drew you to study earthquakes — were they always your favorite subject?
I think earthquakes are one of the most important, fascinating unsolved problems in earth science — why they occur, what triggers them, what stops them. And they intersect societal issues, because they’re so destructive, and the toll they are taking keeps rising.
Q: Tell me about GeoRisk. You are currently pitching it to a range of possible funders?
There’s also a scientific imperative: If we only forecast earthquake hazards in the developed world, we’re doing it in too few areas to be able to test if it’s working at all. We’ll never know if we’re doing better than chance, because there aren’t enough earthquakes that occur. One of the ironies for the U.S. public, therefore, is that to get better earthquake forecasting for California, for example, we need such a global model.
Q: What’s the benefit to insurance companies?
Q: You’ve been involved in a number of hazard documentaries [including NOVA’s “Killer Quake” and National Geographic’s IMAX movie “Forces of Nature”]. What do you most want to convey to the public about earthquakes?
It’s also important to express our enthusiasm, our joy in discovery and in what we’re doing. And although it’s easy to convey that intellectual excitement, we can also look like Dr. Strangelove if we seem to be taking too much pleasure in the occurrence of a large earthquake.
Q: I read an article in which you called the 1992 Landers earthquake in California the “Velveteen Rabbit” of earthquake science, because it’s been loved and fussed over so much. That could sound odd.