Oral History Transcript — Dr. L. R. Sykes
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L. R. Sykes; June 29, 1994
In this interview, Lynn Sykes discusses the National Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council and the Parkfield earthquake prediction experiment. Topics discussed include: earthquake prediction; seismology; Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory; Columbia University; United States Geological Survey; John Filson; Stuart Nishenko; Barry Raleigh; Clarence Allen; Frank Press; San Andreas fault system; Lloyd Cluff; Loma Prieta earthquake; W. H. Bakun and T. V. McEvilly's earthquake predictions; Kerry Sieh; plate tectonics.
It's June 29, 1994, this is Joel Genuth with Lynn Sykes at his office in Lamont-Doherty to talk about the National Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council and the Parkfield
experiment. Let me warm you up just by asking you how long you've been at Lamont-Doherty and
where you came here from.
Sykes:Okay, I came here as a graduate student in 1960, I've been here ever since. And I was
first on the research staff after receiving my Ph.D. ultimately got a professorial position, which I
continue to hold.
Genuth:So you were both a professor at Columbia, and —
Genuth:Does that mean you have two offices?
Sykes:No, this is my main office. Lamont is the center for earth sciences at Columbia. We do
our undergraduate and beginning graduate teaching down on the main campus, but all of the graduate
students now in the earth sciences do their research out here at Lamont, as do all the professors in
And have you, in the 30 plus years you've been here, have you held positions or had
offices in other institutions, other [???], anything that would disperse the records that you've
Sykes:Not to disperse the records, but there was about a two year period in which I was employed
by the federal government, of what has now become NOAA but went through several name changes
in the Department of Commerce. And I was stationed here at Lamont, so I didn't move, but I was,
for that period of time, a federal employee.
Genuth:Program manager or a research scientist?
Sykes:As a research scientist at that time.
Genuth:And have you always been a seismologist?
Sykes:When I came to Columbia in 1960, I was interested in geophysics, and as an undergraduate
I had been in the department of geology and geophysics at MIT where I was in a five year program
and got both the bachelors and a masters in five years. I knew I was interested more in physics,
math, electrical engineering, as applied to the earth sciences, so I came and interviewed here, liked
seismology, but it wasn't something that I came here specifically to study.
Genuth:Okay. Was there any particular mentor for you here at Columbia who's helped to shape
Sykes:I think the person that was instrumental in getting me to come here was head of seismology
at that time, Jack Oliver, who, about 20 years ago, moved to Cornell to head the department there.
Genuth:Yeah. Okay, well, let me then ask you about NEPEC, when did you join NEPEC, who
got you onto NEPEC, why did it seem a good thing for you to do at the time?
Sykes:Okay. I think there was one meeting that was a precursor to any NEPEC, and in 1979 there
was a quite large earthquake up in Alaska, called the Saint Elias Earthquake, this was a region that
I and my colleagues had been working on, but there was a place that had not had a big earthquake
since 1899, and in fact, this region ruptured in two earthquakes about ten days apart. So it was
evident soon after the '79 earthquake that only a part of that region had rebroken after the 1899
sequence. So, a group of us got together with some of our colleagues in the US Geological Survey,
that by then had the responsibility for the US Earthquake Program, and we had a meeting about our
concern about whether there might be yet another earthquake that would fill in this region that
ruptured in the two earthquakes in 1899. So NEPEC didn't exist at that time, that meeting probably
had something to do with putting NEPEC together, but also the federal government, the USGS, had
agreed to have some forum particularly for dealing with people that made public predictions. And
I became a member but not the chairman of NEPEC when it was constituted, it meant to consider
just one case, which was the so called Brady Spence Prediction, of an earthquake — of a truly giant
earthquake, that they had predicted for a very narrow time window of a few days off shore of Peru,
and Chile. And the NEPEC subsequently, upon hearing that information came to the conclusion that
it was not a scientifically valid prediction. I was then asked — and the dates would be, in these
various volumes of the prediction council, and these are open file reports of the USGS.
Sykes:Okay? And so this is the one of the first meeting.
Genuth:Minutes of the, I see, NEPEC.
Sykes:This is the date of this report, but the first meeting that I chaired was in November 1984.
Sykes:And so sometime in 1984 I was asked by the person that was head of the Office of
Earthquakes and Volcanoes, John Filson, if I would be willing to chair NEPEC. And I said that I
had two concerns, and one was that there was not the forum within the federal government or USGS
to bring together people that worked for USGS and in the external program in the universities to bear
upon discussing areas that we thought had the potential for having earthquakes, and to continue to
review areas that we had a particular concern about, for various organizations, like USGS, might
have concern about. In the same sense that we had this concern for the Yakataga Region in Alaska.
Sykes:And that I was concerned that NEPEC not be an organization that reacted more passively
when — mainly to what I would call quack predictions, those that are not scientifically valid. And,
these are being made all the time by people.
Sykes:And that I didn't feel that the committee should take up like the huge amount of time that
was taken up with the Brady-Spence Prediction of what was then at least 15 scientists, and the
various amount of money that went into having that meeting for this organization to deal mainly with
quack predictions. So I suggested that NEPEC be given a second charge other than just the one to
review predictions for their scientific validity, and report back to the director of USGS. And that
was that we review long term forecasts or predictions, and by long term a few decades. One of the
reasons that I was chosen, and Filson told me this, was that a graduate student of mine, Stuart
Nishenko, and I did a study in 1983 that was published in Journal of Geophysical Research in 1984,
dividing up the San Andreas Fault and a few other major faults in California, into specific segments
for which we did an estimate of whether the probability that each one of those could rupture in an
earthquake that would fill that segment over the next 20 year period. So, Filson knew that I had an
interest in California earthquakes, and in this problem of decadal level forecasts or predictions, and
so that was why he asked me. The director then, in writing me a letter asking me to take this job as
chairman, added this stipulation that NEPEC would do studies of the long term potential of various
Genuth:Does NEPEC have a legislative basis? Or is this just something that USGS is able to
say that this is a good idea, we're going to do it?
No, it's more than that, but NEPEC has a charter. It's not something I've reviewed now in
Genuth:Yeah, I understand that.
Sykes:But I believe that some of the congressional legislation establishing the US National
Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program calls for something like NEPEC and what it would do, that
there would be this mechanism. The charter says that the chairman shall not be an employee of the
USGS or of the federal government, and that at least half the members shall be non-federal
employees. Then in practice, what happened was that then the chairman was not a federal employee,
and then the other members of NEPEC were divided half and half between USGS employees and
university consultants, one person from the state of California, was a member of NEPEC.
Genuth:Alright. I'm trying to wonder where if there's a connection or how you put the two
strings together, an official legislative charge to USGS to do something like NEPEC, and this
meeting that you helped to organize in '79 in the wake of the Alaska earthquake. It sounded to me
as though that '79 meeting was a kind of a very — I first heard you and thought, "Oh, this is just
informal scientists, self-organizing, something big has happened, we need to think about how to
study it further."
Sykes:Right. And that's right. And so it was informal, it was not something that was reviewed
by an external committee, but it did result in some recommendations for further study of that region.
Genuth:Any records of that '79 meeting? Or recommendations embodied in what sort of form?
Sykes:The person that chaired the meeting was then a branch chief in the US Geological Survey,
Dr. Barry Raleigh.
Sykes:R-A-L-E-I-G-H. And he is now head of the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, or some
name like that, at the University of Hawaii.
Mm-Hum. What, this was just an informal meeting that, or get together, that USGS then
said, "Ah Ha, we can take advantage of this", or —?
Sykes:I don't think so. I think that it, in a sense, was just kind of a precursor of the type of
problem that we needed to have a forum to address.
Sykes:And probably the thing that led to the formation of NEPEC was probably the congressional
legislation that stipulated that such a committee would exist.
Sykes:But with the thing in Alaska, as I recall, we were concerned here, a group of about four of
us, were studying this region, I ended up calling Barry and telling him briefly about our concern, and
he got together a meeting of a somewhat larger group, to discuss it informally.
Genuth:Okay. Now, when NEPEC becomes officially formed, do you describe it as more of a
reactive committee to claims that an earthquake is going to happen, and in the case of the Brady
Spence, really a quack?
Sykes:Yes. And I think that the charter says that the director of USGS who is responsible for
issuing any official US Government announcements about earthquake predictions, or forecasts, that
NEPEC reports to him.
I guess the question is — I was coming at it backhanded - I guess the direct question
is, was NEPEC meeting regularly, and setting its agenda before it got into the business that you
wanted it to get into of reviewing these —
Sykes:No, no, no. It had met only once. The chairman was Clarence Allen from Caltech. It got
into what I would call this more passive reactive mode. And I was very concerned about that, so that
when I became chairman I wanted us to meet a few times per year, which we did for almost the four
years I was chairman. And that we would review any predictions that were brought to us, of which
there were a few during that period of time and that we would also systematically review several
areas. And prior then to the first meeting Filson, of USGS, said that USGS was concerned about
Parkfield, they would like us to take up Parkfield as our first agenda item. We soon then set an
agenda that we would meet next in Southern California and review the situation in Southern
California. We came back to Parkfield several different times. We reviewed the greater San
Francisco Bay area, Puget Sound, Cascadia subduction zone problem, and also a few areas in Alaska.
Genuth:And that review an area, does that mean, go out and inspect a physical area or review
the literature that had been recently published about that area?
Sykes:Usually what we would do would be that we would have a meeting in which people that
were experts on that region would be invited to come. There were a couple of things that I insisted
as chairman, and that is that everyone that came to a meeting had to bring a one page — at least a
one page summary or abstract, and that they had to allow us to copy their vu-graphs of figures. And
the USGS would make sure that these got published in one of these open-file reports, along with the
minutes of the meeting. So I felt that it was very important that this record be there so that someone
can go back and actually read what the recommendations of the council were. And I think that,
subsequently, was even more important than I thought it was then, but it made sure that there was
a record, because we found that with some predictions there isn't just something that is said often,
predictions evolved with time, and you can change them.
Genuth:And this almost turns these meetings into mini scientific symposia.
Sykes:That's right. They were typically two day meetings, usually with an open part constituting
most of the meeting to hear, for example, the one on Alaska, people reviewed three, what we defined
as critical areas of Alaska, and then were the prediction council to meet in executive session, to draft
the minutes or recommendations that we had, and particularly if there was a prediction brought to
us to draft those right there at that time.
Genuth:Okay. And, let me ask, it's a bureaucratic question, but it has a kicker for me. Does
NEPEC often, or ever, form sub committees?
Sykes:So the direct answer to that is no, that we always met as a whole. We would bring in, of
course people to testify or talk about these various problems.
Genuth:And they would have to leave their abstract and view graphs behind.
Right. The one thing that has caused some confusion, and that was about midway through
our deliberations at these meetings, after we'd reviewed Southern California, the Bay Area, and
Alaska, I pulled together some recommendations that I brought before the council, kind of
summarizing our findings, and trying to prioritize regions that NEPEC felt deserved special
attention. At that time, really, Parkfield was the only one that had multiplicity of instruments and
a fair amount of money going into it. I think there was always concern about us putting most of the
financial eggs in the Parkfield basket, and that continues to be the case. But during that whole period
of time, in fact, financially, the US Earthquake Program was declining financially when corrected
for inflation. So it was not possible to make new starts, and I believe that we still should be looking
and trying to monitor to see if we can pick up precursors for more than just the Parkfield area, but
that has not transpired.
Okay. Well we'll come back —
Sykes:But the one thing that then happened after we put together the summary of
recommendations that I then, as chairman of NEPEC, took it to the National Academy of Sciences,
has a standing committee on seismology, and I made a presentation to them. They suggested that
I then present the matter also to Frank Press, at that time.
Genuth:As Office of Science Technology Policy.
Genuth:No, we're well after 1985.
Sykes:By that time he's the President of the Academy, and so one or two people from USGS plus
myself, went to see him with these recommendations. He suggested that he felt the problem of
Southern California was so important that the prediction council needed to review the chance of
there being a great earthquake in Southern California. And he recommended that we do that before
some additional action be taken in terms of any public announcement. So, I then took that back to
the director of USGS, and it was decided that a separate committee, a working group, would be put
together to examine Southern California. The person that was asked to chair that, Lloyd Cluff, had
formerly been at Woodward Clyde Associates, a consulting firm. He had gone to work as the chief
geophysicist for Pacific Gas and Electric. He was willing to be chairman but he didn't want to have
his name displayed, and his organization, being the chairman of this group.
Sykes:But this separate group was set up that had a few members of NEPEC on it, but it was
purposely to try and have a fairly independent evaluation of the probabilities for Southern California.
Cluff, who was based in the San Francisco area also felt he was very concerned about the Hayward
Fault, in the East Bay area. And he recommended that this working group consider all of the San
Andreas Fault system. And so that's ultimately what happened. This working group had several
meetings and they came and presented their findings to NEPEC, we made some recommendations
of changes in their document, that NEPEC then reviewed their findings. So, yes, I was involved in
getting the study going, but it was not a committee that was appointed officially by NEPEC. It was
appointed by the director of USGS.
Genuth:So you mean this working group was appointed by USGS?
Genuth:Did it then have to operate under the same sort of sunshine laws as the full NEPEC?
Sykes:Well, it was certainly conceived that it would do its job, and then disband. I'll show you
a report. And that's what happened.
Okay. And the original impetus for my question about subcommittees is that — trying
to do a little history of high energy physics. The high energy physics advisory panel, HEPAP.
Always has minutes of its meetings.
Genuth:But it always delegates anything important to a subcommittee, which is not obliged to
keep any records of itself and all you find is a final report, and basically there's no way to trace how
the subcommittee's report was written.
Sykes:Well, this is true with this working group, I don't think that it had minutes.
Sykes:It did come and make a preliminary presentation to NEPEC, and we voiced some concerns,
they came back at our next meeting, and we approved in principle the report.
Genuth:Okay. Have you kept any unofficial records of NEPEC's work?
Or other [???] were in terms of your time with them?
Sykes:Right. There are two things, and one is that I kept a notebook, but it's really in the form
more of jottings, of if I had a phone conversation with Filson or someone else, of a list of topics to
bring up. And so that that notebook I have kept in a NEPEC file. The other thing that many people
are not aware of, and that is that at least when I was chairman, the meetings were tape recorded, the
entire proceedings, both the ones that were open and the executive sessions. I have not followed up
to make sure that USGS, who was responsible for collecting those tapes, has safeguarded them, and
so that's something —
Sykes:— to look into for posterity.
Genuth:[laughs] Yes indeed, that's —
Sykes:Okay. And I was also concerned from the liability point of view that as people brought
up things of what had happened, that in fact, that there was a written record. So the USGS employee
that was the secretary, Clement Shearer, during the entire period of time — most of the period of
time that I was chairman — he was responsible for issuing, putting together these open file reports
with me, and he did the tape recording.
Genuth:Okay, so he's a good person to ask what happened to the tapes if anything.
Sykes:That's right. And I, in fact, would be very concerned that they be preserved.
Okay. And, in reaching recommendations, would the committee operate by consensus?
Did you have to take votes? Did you, as chairman, ever have to just pound the table and say, "I'm
making a decision, people, and you all have to sign off on it?"
Sykes:Well, I think there was none of the latter.
Sykes:We decided in the beginning, at our first meeting, that we would operate by consensus as
much as possible. And I would say overwhelmingly that was the case. At this point midway
through, in which I put together a list of the regions for priority study I asked the various members
to get me a vote of these about 15, 12 to 15 regions from one to three, how they would rank them.
And most of the members sent me back their ranking and that's recorded in the minutes.
Genuth:Was there much of a scatter?
Sykes:Well, it turned out that the one place — there was mostly very strong agreement on the
regions. Interestingly enough, the one region that had the biggest disagreement was the segment that
broke in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. And we at NEPEC had several debates about that region.
There were several people in USGS, in Menlo Park, which is their main center for earthquake
studies, that did not believe that that segment was right for having a large earthquake for many
decades. Nishenko and I in our '84 paper —
Sykes:Nishenko and I had given this region that we now call the Lorna Prieta segment the second
highest probability. There was quite a long battle that happened with exchange of letters, several of
which are published in the NEPEC minutes and volumes, but not all of which of a debate that went
on mainly between Wayne Thatcher, at USGS Menlo Park, and one of my colleagues Christopher
Scholz. And I was involved in that, in part, over what's the chance of that segment rupturing in a
large earthquake. So there was one area in which the votes were split almost evenly, between which
should be given highest priority and of the 12 regions that it should be given third priority.
Genuth:Okay, well, we're not quite to the subject, but I can't help but ask. Were you right for
the right reason about Lorna Prieta?
Sykes:Yes. In terms of the overall idea that this region was ripe for having a big earthquake, that
Genuth:Obviously it was right. The intellectual question is, why did you believe it was right,
and others didn't? I mean, that implies to me that there's a scientific controversy here over —
Sykes:Yes, there was a scientific controversy, and the USGS people had relied solely on geodetic
data that were made going from about 1857, another survey in the 1880s, and then right after the
1906 earthquake. And an evaluation of those data. I and Scholz felt that those data were rather
weak, the geodetic data. The USGS finding of large displacements in 1906 in that Lorna Prieta
segment of more than two and a half meters led them to believe then that it was not ripe for the next
Genuth:The stress had been relived in a —
Sykes:That it'd been relieved enough that any plate motion since 1906 had not been enough to
restore it to the state of just before 1906.
Sykes:We felt that those data were weak, and we also emphasized something else and that was
that there had been a big earthquake on the peninsula — San Francisco peninsula — in 1838. There
was a time of low population density there, but we felt that the data argued that the Loma Prieta
segment had broken in 1838, and then if you take 1906, take the time difference, and add that to
1906, it leads you, we believe, to greater concern that it would re-rupture at least soon.
Sykes:And so that was our basis for being concerned.
Genuth:Okay. It's not my job really to try to talk science, here, but there are times when it's
Genuth:Now let me get you then to focus on why — on how NEPEC's operations led to this
Parkfield experiment and this multiplicity of instruments all sited around Parkfield?
Sykes:Well, for the most part that was not done through the instigation of NEPEC. The USGS
did a big study of the last Parkfield earthquake in 1966, and so gradually, when they became in
charge of the US earthquake program, they put more instrumentation in that area. Kerry Sieh, from
Caltech, had done a study of offsets in the 1857 great earthquake in Southern California. And he
had studied two foreshocks to that earthquake that happened on the day before the January 1857
earthquake, that he thought had occurred at Parkfield. And his paper was published in 1979. There
was general thought, particularly in the USGS group at Menlo Park, that a Parkfield earthquake then
could either be a foreshock or it could be a trigger to the next great earthquake, the degree rupture
more or less the 1857 segment. So that led them to the Parkfield experiment, and it was going before
NEPEC was put together.
Sykes:There was then a study of not only the 1966 but the 1934 and 1922 Parkfield earthquakes
by Bakun & McEvilly. Bakun then being at USGS, and McEvilly at Berkeley, indicating that they
were virtually identical in location and size and characteristics. So the USGS group then put
together the idea that they then brought to this first NEPEC meeting that I chaired, of a long term
prediction for Parkfield, or what NEPEC evaluated as being a long term prediction.
Genuth:Based on the Bakun & McEvilly paper?
Sykes:So this is based on the Bakun & McEvilly paper, but it was also based on Bakun and
several other people from USGS making presentations, and those are all in this first volume of who
Sykes:And so we had an executive session after those presentations and agreed, and there's a
statement in here that's worth consulting that we found the general prediction as brought to us by
USGS employees to be scientifically valid. And we quoted the 95 percent confidence number that
they gave. There has subsequently been some just criticism of how the 1934 earthquake, that was
not in the 22 year sequence was handled in that analysis, particularly by Jim Savage with the USGS.
And what Savage argued that NEPEC should have made other evaluations, but we were not charged
with making predictions as a separate entity other than making these long term forecasts in reviewing
regions. So we reviewed the prediction that was brought to us by USGS employees. So there was
not a review there of a host of similar but somewhat different predictions.
Genuth:Okay. To what extent is what you're doing much different than what you imagine the
journal referees did for Bakun & McEvilly's paper? And is — I mean, is what you're doing very
similar to what you would do if you were asked to review a Journal of Geophysical Research paper?
Sykes:Well, the first part of the review of the evidence, that is correct, but NEPEC was charged
by charter of being the interface between the scientific community and strictly the director of USGS ,
of informing the director about the scientific validity of prediction, about these long term forecasts.
And if the director issued some statement, which he then did, about this long term prevention for
Parkfield, but that was a federal pronouncement. It's become very clear — it's very different than
just some scientists writing an article.
Sykes:Because various people could agree with them, or disagree with them. And so a press
release or a statement by the director of USGS, I think, carried different weight, and was seen to
carry different weight by officials responsible for public safety, particularly in California, and the
Genuth:So, in effect, this Parkfield business came up somewhat in the old fashioned way of a
prediction being made, maybe an intellectually more credible cast of characters than the prediction
for the earthquake off — where was it, off the coast of South America?
Genuth:But it sounds like a recapitulation, that's the word I was struggling for, a recapitulation
of what NEPEC had been doing, only with smarter people, better trained people doing the predicting.
Sykes:I think that's fair to say, but at least the outcome was that this was the first time that the
prediction council had said "Here's the prediction that generally has scientific credibility."
Sykes:And that's the job that we were asked to do with predictions, whereas the council had
previously recommended that this Brady Spence Prediction did not have scientific credibility.
Genuth:Okay. And for a rough chronology, I mean, this is what oral history is bad at, but can
you remember around what year it was that NEPEC evaluated the Bakun & McEvilly work?
Sykes:At this first meeting.
Genuth:That you chaired?
Sykes:In November of 1984.
Sykes:This was our first review.
Genuth:Alright. At one point you also said that Filson asked NEPEC to look into Parkfield. Is
that tied in with the Bakun & McEvilly work, or —?
Sykes:Well, I think our sense was that we were not being asked to review the Bakun & McEvilly
Genuth:I understand that.
Sykes:It was being asked to review this topic and various people came and testified to us. But,
in fact here in the opening remarks, I'm seeing that I said what I expected from NEPEC. Filson, who
was the vice chairman, says here that he considered this to be a historic moment for NEPEC if it
should choose to take a more active role. And it probably says something here about Parkfield.
Okay. Well then let me ask what your sense was of what kind of follow up you wanted
to have or expected to have from issuing these reports? I mean, the outstanding feature of Parkfield
from a history of science perspective is that there are half a dozen — I don't know how many off the
top of my head ways of measuring strain or stress in the earth out there.
Genuth:And people comparing what kind of data they're collecting, and all trying to figure out
what's the best way to predict, or to be able to predict when an earthquake would come in the near
term, rather than the decade long term. Is that something that in some ways follows from NEPEC's
activity? Is that something that you have recommendations to make about as a NEPEC chairman?
Sykes:Well, first off, at least on one thing, and one of the reasons for these volumes was that I
had in mind a precedent that in Japan, they have an earthquake coordinating committee, that meets
a few times per year, and people bring their latest findings with something like this of a page or two
of summary, and a lot of figures. And so very often that can be the only data that may get published
for a couple of years. So, if you're interested in earthquake prediction, I feel that it's necessary for
the community to have these data in front of them. And I felt that it was necessary for people beyond
NEPEC to have them as well as the NEPEC to have them not just as figures that had flown by them.
And I, in fact had periodically received and thumbed through those Japanese things and found that
they were the best way to keep up with what was going on on the subject in Japan. So that is a
Genuth:So in effect you forced people to present their preliminary findings because that's
socially responsibly to get them to present them, is that it?
Sykes:Both, and they're for several different communities. I had in mind the scientific
community particularly needed this information. And instead of me, then as chairman being asked
to give a synopsis of what had happened, a recommendations, or what people had said at the
meetings, they'd say, you know, go to this open file report, and there it is.
Sykes:Then in terms of where we went from there, after the recommendation of the scientific
validity of the Parkfield prediction, there was a separate council that met, and the State of California
has a California Earthquake Prediction Evaluation Council, that had a few members of NEPEC on
it, but mostly not. All people were from the state of California, and they then re-reviewed the
Parkfield situation. They endorsed that also as being valid scientifically, they believed that what
back in the McEvilly had said was a 95 percent chance of an earthquake happening at a certain time
window, they believed, and stated, that it was only about a 50 percent chance in that time window
and gave some reasons for that.
Genuth:Of why they came up with a lower estimate.
Sykes:That prediction council called Parkfield an intermediate term prediction, and even though
it was rather fuzzy, of what was a long term prediction, and a short term prediction. But I think that
there was a political motive on the part of the chairman of the California Council, Jim Davis, who's
the state geologist for California, he was then, and is now.
Sykes:He thought that the prediction would make a bigger impact if it was an intermediate term
prediction — called an intermediate term prediction.
Sykes:Whereas NEPEC called it a long term prediction.
Genuth:Perhaps it would have had a bigger impact if he had said it was a 95 percent certainty
than a 50 percent certainty.
Sykes:That's right. So they're obviously —
Genuth:He's pretty much giving from one hand and taking away from the other.
Sykes:That's right. The next thing that happened was then that the state of California, through
Jim Davis, officially asked USGS to have two goals for the Parkfield experiment. And one was to
continue the old goal of trying to collect data, that would be valuable, retrospectively, on getting
information on earthquake precursors. But that the second goal would be to try their best to make
a short-term prediction. And the director of USGS accepted that. A group within USGS then sat
about coming up with a response plan, and so NEPEC met several times then, at subsequent
Genuth:To go over the response plan?
Sykes:— to go over the response plan. And that was ultimately published and put into effect.
Sykes:But it's interesting that it probably took about 25 iterations of that, and I think particularly
a lot of scientists thought that, "Okay, when you make a recommendation, or you come up with some
guidelines that it's easy putting together a document." It certainly became very clear to me that that
was no trivial exercise, and going through 25 iterations by USGS was an indication that it was not
trivial. And this is for a region of exceedingly low population density. You can imagine what it
would be like if you tried to do this for a populated area.
Genuth:Intellectually, what's driving all the needs to refine or revise the response plan? Is there
— I mean, can you reconstruct that anymore — are people worried about who telephones whom and
Sykes:You mean at that time, the 25 iterations?
Sykes:Well, one big issue was that — had to do with the size of the next Parkfield earthquake,
and most people from USGS, from NEPEC, believed that the next Parkfield earthquake would be
about the same size as the previous one, would be about a magnitude six earthquake, and that it
could cause some damage locally, but would not cause damage to some of the nearby larger places,
like Paso Robles. But one other variation was that the next segment to the south that Kerry Sieh
believed had ruptured about four meters in - that's a number we'd have to check — but it ruptured
a larger amount than the Parkfield segment had in 1857, but that if his numbers were correct, of how
much it had ruptured in 1857, in the time since 1857, about enough strain had built up, that it was
possible that it could rupture along with Parkfield, and in which case you were talking about a
magnitude seven earthquake. And so that was expressed as one possible variant. The state of
California when they then considered the response plan, felt that they needed to plan and advertise
that it could be a magnitude seven earthquake, even though most scientists felt that that was an
unlikely, but possible scenario compared to the magnitude six. So there was a real issue of
substance, and the people in the Office of Emergency Services in California, wanted to protect
themselves, and I think they should.
Genuth:That's one of the differences between being a scientist and a public official.
Sykes:That's right. And there was an argument, there were these five different levels of warnings
of which ones should be made public and particularly, USGS felt that only the top — the highest level
of warning should be made public. The State of California felt that more should be made
public. And so there was quite a long debate of ironing that issue out.
Genuth:Okay. I guess this is pretty much unprecedented to get into this earthquake prediction
business, and that in itself —
Sykes:Yes, right. Right. Well, and also this response document. So I feel that that was a major
accomplishment both of USGS and the Prediction Council reviewing it, and of it being put into
effect. And we specifically stated that it should be tried for a period of a few years and then
Genuth:Okay. Did you — were still in — did NEPEC review it after a few years? Were you
still on NEPEC when —
Sykes:I was not, I was not on NEPEC —
Genuth:When it was reviewed.
Sykes:And I am not sure that it has been very thoroughly reviewed since then.
Sykes:But it certainly became clear then as the Parkfield earthquake did not happen, but there
were good reasons for reviewing this. And there was one issue once of a high level prediction by
USGS in which, and along with this document there was to be a Parkfield working group that would
be periodically reading the review data, and the lower level predictions from Parkfield. And they
were supposed to respond as indicated in this document. So some phenomena happened a few years
ago, but after I was chairman, in which some of the creep meters, and these were telemetered (?)
back to Menlo Park, showed very large changes. The Parkfield working group met to discuss those
and from what Al Lindh has told me there was a division about half and half between whether they
were seeing something that was entirely environmental and had to do with the huge amount of
rainfall that had broken the drought in California, and the fact that there were no other indicators that
were of a precursory — possible precursory nature. And so he and some others felt that the
prediction should not be issued, and other people felt that this document says that this shall happen.
And so they issued the prediction, and they then found out when someone got down to Parkfield that
one of the creep meters was underwater, and so I think the consensus is clear that this was an
environmental effect, it was not the earth responding.
Sykes:But I had always felt that the Parkfield working group should have a certain amount of
discretion in working with this document. It was pretty clear at that time, we're not sure that they
had discretion or not. And, of course, they're working under a deadline, in which they had to make
a decision in a matter of an hour or so.
Genuth:Mm-Hum. And under those circumstances, I think it's very understandable that they
adhered to the letter of the response plan.
Genuth:Okay. I wanted to bring you back to a comment you made quite a while back that
funding for seismology has been shrinking compared to inflation, and that, or when corrected for
inflation, and that's there are a lot of eggs in the Parkfield basket.
Genuth:I'd certainly like your opinion as an individual — is that a good thing? I know your
opinion as to whether it's a good thing the budget's not been rising, but rather in this budgetary
climate, is it good policy to have that many eggs in the Parkfield basket? And to what extent do you
think NEPEC has helped to guide USGS policies as far as where its shrinking resources are
Sykes:I think that this review of a whole bunch of areas of California and Alaska was very
helpful, to that extent of most people agree that there was some critical areas that we needed to focus
on, and ultimately, that has happened in fact with the creation of the Southern California Earthquake
Center. It's had an effect along with the occurrence of the 1989 Lorna Prieta earthquake, in putting
together an organization in the Bay Area, that finally got Berkeley and USGS working together rather
than fighting with one another.
I'd brought people in from Stanford that hadn't had much to do with the earthquake
program. So in that sense it was beneficial. There is an ongoing debate about — of the money for
the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, how should it be split up between which you
would say would be mitigation and various things like earthquake insurance versus the engineering,
versus science. And even among the sciences, do you do more work on just kind of a very long-term
potential of a place like the Cascadia Zone versus earthquake prediction. And I think that it's clear
that as the Parkfield earthquake did not happen, that the community has gotten more disappointed
that that hadn't happened, and more skeptical about earthquake prediction. I feel for both some good.
Genuth:— and you were saying about a prediction having gotten a bad name.
Sykes:Yes, and I think for some justifiable reasons that the Parkfield earthquake did not occur,
within the 95% confidence window, that there were these two higher level short term predictions
made for Parkfield, one of which was clearly just having to do with the rainfall. And so adding both
the press and the public in general has somehow expected more, or they will say they expected more
than from the scientific community than we delivered. I think all along we've been saying that we
need to have monitoring in more than one area of a multiplicity of physical fields, or chemical fields
that they monitor. And I still believe that that's so. At about the time the decision was made to go
to the short term prediction for Parkfield, several of us on NEPEC said that more emphasis should
be given to intermediate prediction, that is prediction on a time scale of months to about one decade.
And I believe even more now that that's the case. The things that can be done socially like
reinforcement of buildings can't be done for short term prediction, and that time window also fits the
political time window of election of officials. And it's also enough time in which if you have an
intermediate prediction that you feel has a high enough level of confidence that some implementation
can be done. So, in fact, Kei Aki and I both, as members of NEPEC urged that USGS and the
community do more work on intermediate term prediction, and in fact then that resulted in there
being a conference on intermediate term production. It was at the suggestion of NEPEC but it then
was organized by Kei Aki and one person from USGS under the USGS program. And, in fact, not
a lot of work has gone on in intermediate-term prediction. And I have felt that there was a gap there
between the long-term things and the three-day Parkfield predictions that deserves more study and
work than the three-day predictions.
Genuth:You'll have to pardon my naivety, does the length of term of the prediction affect data
collecting strategies to work with on an intermediate prediction would you want different data than
are currently begin collected, say at Parkfield? Or do you just need your time, salary, and computer
time to analyze the kind of data at Parkfield they are collecting differently than the working group
does for their very short term predictions?
Sykes:I think that the data from Parkfield are sufficient for doing work on intermediate term
Sykes:But I would prefer to see us working in a larger number of areas, and you know that's
obviously involves economics, as to how many can you afford to do, under the program. And the
US for various reasons, financial reasons, has not put the money into serious monitoring of other
Genuth:I guess the other thing that could be done is, you know, less dense monitoring of more
Sykes:Yes. Well, Parkfield has the advantage that it's a pretty small area, that the rupture zone
of the 1966 earthquake's only 40 kilometers long.
Genuth:And a high density monitoring for less money than other places?
Sykes:That's right, and you really know the San Andreas Fault is a very well defined feature there.
If you go to Southern California, then the place that I believe is most likely to have the next truly
great earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault, is a region that's 250 kilometers long. The San
Andreas is multi branched in that region. And so monitoring is more difficult, but I think that it
involves a strategy that has to have less dense instrumentation. The short period seismometers,
there's a good distribution of those, but not much of anything else that's been monitored, like strain
or. What one thing that's now helping to fill in the gap is GPS data, the Geodetic Positioning
Satellite, and really for the first time we're able to rapidly resurvey changes in line length. And so
I think that that helps to revolutionize the study of strain build up to earthquakes.
Genuth:Is that going to put some of the laser work out of business that you can do by satellite
what had been done by, what was it, two color or three color lasers?
Sykes:Yes. It's pretty clear that the GPS is much less expensive and more accurate than the laser
Sykes:Or the VLBI of using huge antennas or using quasar sources that GPS then uses the signals
and the Navy satellites rather than using very distant objects that require much larger antennas.
Genuth:Now finally, let me finish up by asking sort of a more personal career issues for you.
Are you a data collector yourself? Are you an instruments person? Have you wanted to put
instruments in the Parkfield region? Have you done so?
Sykes:No. I'm not a data collector in that sense, I'm a person that works on data but data collected
by some of these networks like the Southern California Network. I have tried to bring together both
the geology and the geophysics.
Genuth:Okay. Have you worked on or with Parkfield data?
Sykes:A little bit, but it's not something that I keep up with on a daily basis, or get a stream of
data continuously from Parkfield.
Genuth:Well, then, the question I was hoping to build up to, was how easy or how independently
can you work on data streams being collected by others without the help of the PI or the person who
has put the instruments in the ground, and maybe done a preliminary processing of the data?
Sykes:Well, we've gone from a situation in which networks were put in and run by organizations,
and like Lamont have a network in a region, the Aleutians, for a long period of time. The tradition
was that a group would run these networks, they would have almost exclusive use of those data, but
now with stations being put in by the university consortium for seismology called Iris, and people
can dial up those data, those long period data, but we can now dial up data from the Bay Area
Network, so there's certain things that I think have become less proprietary, but they're put in and,
say operated by a consortium, or operated by a group for the benefit of the community, in which that
community could get data over the Internet. And I think that there's a lot to be said for that, because
now would say a place like Utah, where the University of Utah ran the Utah Seismic Network for
a long time, worked on the data. There's a lot to be said for people from other places, for example,
working with a colleague from Utah to do a new and different type of study of those data. And so
that's where I think some interesting progress will be made.
Sykes:And an even more extreme example would be that the group in theoretical physics at the
University of California at Santa Barbara has gotten very interested in earthquake prediction, and to
what extent can earthquakes be predictable, and examining earthquakes as a process of deterministic
chaos, and I think have made a lot of important contributions to the subject, more by doing
simulations with some analysis of data. So I think that we're moving away from — I operate these
five instruments and collect the data, and so there's certain types of things that I think need to become
more and more quickly available to a whole community that are fairly routine streams of data. There
are new types of instruments in the data that need to be developed by individuals.
Genuth:Okay. Has your career mostly been built working on data that Lamont-Doherty collected
in the traditional way you described?
Sykes:My main contribution, or my first, what I would say big contribution, was in the 1960s
with plate tectonics, and which at that time, a new seismic network had been put out at about 150
stations around the world in which we were one of the few places that got all of the data from the
stations, and they were in analog form, and microfilm, but it was possible to sit down in one day and
do the type of study that no one could do before. You just didn't have that number of stations of
calibrated instruments, and before you'd write away to stations around the world, and you'd get back,
get little dribs of stuff over five years that's poorly calibrated. So that network really revolutionized
seismology, so I've worked on data from that network.
Genuth:And who put in that network? Whose network was that?
Sykes:That network was put in by a group, the US Coast and Geodetic Survey. Mostly then got
transferred to Albuquerque. So the group that put in those stations is the group that's now in USGS
in Albuquerque. And when they were a member of the old organization they were in Albuquerque
Sykes:So, I worked on data analysis with the mechanisms of earthquakes in mind, and of testing
some of the ideas particularly for the oceans about seafloor spreading. And I was able to do what
was essentially a confirmation of seafloor spreading using seismology.
Genuth:Okay. I guess I should follow this up. Why was it that Lamont was one of the few
places to have a complete data stream from this network?
Sykes:Two reasons, I mean Lamont had had a long tradition of collecting a lot of data, worldwide
with our ships. And during the International Geophysical Year, we had put in what was a prototype
of about a dozen long period stations of which this 150 station network was somewhat of an
improvement in instrumentation, but it was mostly a larger network. So we had an interest there.
We had this one position at Lamont of a government employee that was paid by the Coast and
Geodetic Survey, I had that position for' about two years, that had previously been set up by Jack
Oliver, Jim Brune had that position until he became a professor at Cal Tech. So as part of the
agreement between Columbia and the Coast and Geodetic Survey, was that they would provide these
Sykes:So they did for about a period of six years. We then, after that, got money from the
National Science Foundation to run this as a facility, to continue buying the film chips and archiving
Genuth:Okay. Let me really wrap this up and ask whether your involvement with NEPEC has
that been a boost to your career, has that been good, or has it just been community service that you
felt that you had to do, or needed to do, but has taken you away from research?
Sykes:I think some of both. I have long had an interest in public policy issues, and so I enjoy
doing it. It was a thing that took a tremendous amount of time and the meetings were very stressful
going on for long periods of time. So it was not something that I could continue for very long. The
other kind of big social issue that I've been involved in has been the verification of nuclear testing.
And I've been involved in that for about 30 years. And I have very much felt that there's a
contribution to be made towards a verifiable test ban by people like myself.
Sykes:And that has been much more of a slugging match with organizations and DOD and DOE
that have not wanted to have a test ban.
Genuth:Okay, now, with regards to records. Now these minutes which you have from your days
as chairman and maybe going back earlier, these I would expect to be able to find at USGS.
Sykes:That's right. You can just get the open file reports and numbers.
Genuth:But your personal notebook that you have in your NEPEC file.
Genuth:Now that's a unique facility, and I don't know, did you have much correspondence with
— as chairman of NEPEC that you may have saved?
Sykes:One of the things that I tried to do, and that was as appendices here. Virtually all the
correspondence I tried to make sure is in here.
Genuth:Okay, well then, at least with respect to your notebooks, do you know of, has anybody
ever contacted you about disposition of records after you retire or before you decide to throw them
Sykes:No. Right. I would not throw that away, and a few of my letters having to do with the
founding of plate tectonics in the '60s. You know, I have kept aside and pulled some of those things
out, and certainly before I retire I would plan to do more work on that.
Genuth:Yes, Columbia is infamous for not taking much care of its history, or the history that its
Sykes:Right. Well, in fact, on the whole subject of plate tectonics, which is probably the biggest
advance in the Earth Sciences, and involves a lot of physics, a lot of chemistry, there has not been
the type of job that you're doing here, and I think it needs to be done. A lot of the principals have
now died, but in another ten years more people —
Genuth:Well, we're also doing interviews about the Deep Sea Drilling Project, which I gather
was instrumental in establishing sea floor spreading in some of its early legs.
Sykes:Yes, in some of its early legs. But I think that plate tectonics needs the type of study that
it really hasn't had. There have been a few people that have written books. One person who was
associated with Berkeley kind of did it from a Berkeley perspective. Menard wrote a book from a
Scripps perspective, and there needs to be more of an assessment, because I think that it's an
important enough revolution that 50 or 100 years from now historians will want to have more in depth
information than that.
Genuth:Okay. A plug in for the historians' profession, Naomi Oreskes is working on a book
dealing with plate tectonics. I don't know if you know her.
Genuth:She's a historian and geologist, geophysicist at Dartmouth. Let me ask you if there's
anything that you wanted to return to that you gave short shrift to, or much more importantly, is there
something in the back of your mind that you've been wondering when I'm going to ask about, and
the answer is, I wasn't smart enough to ask about it. In other words, now is the time for you to tell
me beyond writing history of plate tectonics, what I should have been asking about with NEPEC and
Sykes:I would say that the only thing that you might want to look into, and that is that I have the
sense that after my term as chairman was finished, that NEPEC has not been as active. And so that's
been a disappointment to me. But I think that was clear from the beginning that Tom McEvilly,
who's been the chairman, has felt that NEPEC should take this more passive responsive role of when
a prediction is brought to them they meet. So, I feel that our whole prediction effort in the United
States at this time of criticisms, some of which are justified and some of which are not, that there
needs to be some forum for regular review.
Genuth:In order to take the justified criticisms to heart and to respond to the unjustified ones?
Sykes:Right. And so to some extent this happens with the Southern California Earthquake
Center, of reviewing things there, but it's not happening for any other part of the country, and there's
not a national perspective among seismologists that have an interest in these problems. If you were
to ask me what do people think about such and such — about the Hayward Fault? Yeah, if there's
a big earthquake on that fault, it's going to be a $50 billion disaster, and it deserves more than just
piecemeal scientific studies and funding of them. There's really the need for some process of review
that's not happening in the US.
Genuth:Okay. I'd like to analyze this interview anonymously as part of the AIP study on
collaborations, is that okay with you?
Genuth:May we keep the transcript in the Niels Bohr Library for the future use of scholars?