Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Southern California Earthquake Center meeting, 2009

I live! And not only do I live, but I've had an intensely busy and extremely productive August and September, with a combination of conferences, personal travel, research, and many many hours of work (and hours of sleep lost) on an outreach project called "Faults of California." I'll post more extensively about that project once it's at the point where I can actually show it to you, but for those of you who follow me on Twitter, this is related to all of the stuff I've been posting about "talking faults" and "comic books."

Anyway! Last week was the annual Southern California Earthquake Center meeting in Palm Springs. Last year's SCEC meeting was my very first scientific conference ever, and even though I went before I'd had any graduate level earth science classes, I still came out of it with tons of ideas for things I wanted to research. This year, now that I've been taking seminars and doing research all year, was even better. I had a much better overall understanding of posters and talks, but even more important, I was much better able to really converse with the people stopping by my poster or the people whose posters I visited, rather than merely explaining what I did, or merely listening to their own explanations. So, in addition to giving me yet another huge load of ideas I'd love to research/model, this year's SCEC meeting also served as a good marker for what a year of work can do. I'm certainly not thinking of myself as "that hack with a music degree" as much as I used to!

A hopefully-brief day-to-day rundown of the meeting:

Saturday, 12 September
Arrived in Palm Springs by 9:30 AM, for the beginning of a workshop on dynamic weakening mechanisms at 10 AM. The research presented in this workshop consisted primarily of laboratory experiments on various types of rock and fault gouge, most of which used a rotary shear device, though with different sets of stresses and different effects being observed. The particular focus seemed to be on assorted flash heating effects, and also the possibility of gels being created from fluid and silica on faults. There seemed to be a little frictional heating between the differing presenters, who sometimes disagreed on each other's experimental setups or interpretation of results, but even with the debate, it was enlightening to see some of the experimental work that goes into the friction laws and fault behavior equations that are coded into the modeling software I use on a regular basis. Toward the end of the day, I slipped out to hear a friend's talk in a workshop on transient detection; his talk was quite clear and well-delivered, though the other two before it were far too caught up in a type of math I haven't yet learned to make any sense to me.

Sunday, 13 September
The second annual SCEC student field trip was to San Gorgonio Pass. This area is particularly intriguing to me because it's a total mess of fault geometry, with curves, bends, branches, and stepovers, with transitions from strike-slip to thrust and back again. This is the kind of crazy complexity I'd love to model at some point, and getting to actually walk all over it and see contact points and evidence of the collision of the Mt. San Jacinto block with the San Bernardino Mountains brought the details of this unusual area far more into light than only reading about them would have. The field trip focused on features associated with these transitions in fault behavior: we looked at strike-slip features like shutter ridges in alluvial fans near Garnet Hill and an incredibly clear juxtaposition of schist and sediment in Whitewater Canyon (where I'd helped install a seismic array last October - guess my back was to this contact point the whole time then!), but only a few kilometers to the northwest, there were 12-meter thrust fault scarps. The last stop was the southern terminus of the clearly-mapped continuous San Andreas Fault. North of there, the Fault can be followed clear through to Point Arena, but the whole San Gorgonio knot to the south still hasn't been unraveled. Seeing these features and talking with the trip leaders gave me a ton of ideas for specific questions to ask and points to finetune in future modeling, and fortunately, the trip leaders said I could continue to pick their brains on this matter as I get into modeling specific faults. After the trip, I hung my poster, and also helped set up the "Faults of California" display in the hallway. It was very odd to have my artwork taking up a whole hallway, though I didn't stand next to it. I put a sign next to it directing people to find me at my research poster - a way to get people to talk to me about both!

Monday, 14 September
The meeting proper started on the 14th. Unlike last year, which separated out organizational discussions for different branches of SCEC, this year had a scientific talk followed by an organization-wide planning session at least tangentially related to the topic of the talk. Monday's talks concerned tremor on the San Andreas at Parkfield (and how it connects to repeating microearthquakes), and how earthquake scientists and engineers can better communicate with each other about their work and needs. I don't remember as much about the objectives discussions on this day as on Tuesday; I admittedly paid a little less attention since they were related to the parts of SCEC less related to my own work, and thus were issues about which I had no particular opinion. I hope - and suspect - that I'll be able to get more and more out of these more distant topics with each consecutive SCEC meeting. The thing I got the most out of on Monday was the poster session; my poster was about the effect of fault stepovers on ground motion, and it was therefore filed with the ground motion group as opposed to the rupture mechanics group. I ended up having a huge amount of traffic and discussion around my poster for both the afternoon and evening session, to the point where I didn't even get a chance to look at any of the other posters. A good problem to have, particularly considering how many ideas for things to look at within the scope of this project I got out of it!

Tuesday, 15 September
Tuesday's plenary talks were another take on dynamic weakening mechanisms (which included video of one rock sample exploding on the shear apparatus), whether or not the Gutenberg-Richter relation actually applies to faults, and a look at the southern California crust with seismic tomography. Of these, the Gutenberg-Richter one prompted the most discussion, in the form of a very heated debate that cut into planning time and continued to crop up in discussion for the rest of the whole conference. It was not enough to entirely deflect the discussion of what modelers and field geologists can do for each other, however. This planning session included the request for more detailed maps of fault geometry (yay!), with the possibility of a community fault mesh that anyone could adapt to their models without having to remesh anything. I certainly hope that these things come to pass, since limited understanding of geometry and the problems of meshing the complexity we do know about put some definite limits on modeling. The rupture dynamics posters were up in the Tuesday session, but once again, I was kept from getting to see very many of them because I was held up at my own work. I didn't plan to hover near the "Faults of California" printout in the hallway, but people dropped by to ask things, and before I knew it, the afternoon session was over. In the evening, I got to walk around the other posters for a few minutes, but then I had a meeting with the guy in charge of education at SCEC to discuss specific things to be done with "Faults of California." It was a very productive talk, even though I missed so many posters. Good thing there are abstracts in the conference program booklet...

Wednesday, 16 September
There was only one plenary talk on Wednesday, and it had to do with earthquake forecasting (but not earthquake prediction). It was an interesting talk, but the planning session afterward was even more interesting to me. I forget the prompt exactly, but it got onto the matter of fault systems and geometry, and there seems to be general agreement that the next phase of SCEC should include an objective for major focus on interactions between faults. There was specific mention of the San Andreas/Garlock intersection, which is of particular interest to me. I'll be pretty far into my PhD work by the time SCEC4 actually starts (2012), but if that work is in an area that's one of the main objectives, that will hopefully mean good things in terms of postdocs or jobs in the future.

I guess I failed at being brief (I guess I had to unload a lot of words after sitting there silently for two months!), but I reiterate that it was an awesome conference overall, and I have a lot more to think about and do over this year and the next few thanks to it.

(And I will hopefully be able to post more about "Faults of California" soon. In the meantime, now that the bulk of work on it is done, I should be posting here more in general. I hope.)