Oral History Transcript — Dr. Lynn Sykes
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Interview with Dr. Lynn Sykes
Lynn Sykes; July 29, 1997
ABSTRACT: Family background and early education; how he became interested in science; his fatherís career as meteorologist, then air traffic controller; living with his motherís parents, meeting his fatherís parents and their influence on him; influential school teachers and extracurricular activities; hobbies; religion; reasons for choosing Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1956Ė1960); joining a fraternity at MIT and choosing earth science as his major.
Doel:This is Ron Doel, and this is a continuing interview with Lynn Sykes. Today is the 29th day of July, 1997. We are again making this recording in Snedenís Landing, New York. Today I wanted to focus on your work on earthquake prediction, which weíve touched on only briefly in other interview segments thus far. I know that your first published papers in earthquake predictions came in the early 1970s, but I wanted to make sure when you had first gotten interested in the problem. When did you first come to think about the problem?
Sykes:Right. That was pretty clear, and it was around 1965. The U.S. and Japan organized the first U.S.-Japan Earthquake Prediction Conference. It was held in Japan. Frank Press went to it, Iím quite sure Jack Oliver went to it. Jack Oliver came back with quite a bit of excitement. That, in fact, resulted in a second conference being held at Lamont. By then I was a young Ph.D. in the midst of working on plate tectonics, but nevertheless, I took a strong interest in both helping to run the conference at Lamont and attending the conference. So itís certainly clear for me that up until that point I had not taken earthquake prediction to be something that was worthy of serious scientific effort.
Doel:Do you feel that was a common view among seismologists in the United States?
Sykes:Oh, it was absolutely clear. In retrospect I mean I know of more things — that [Father] Macelwane made some very derogatory remarks in print about the futility of working on earthquake prediction. [Charles] Richter has made some comments that people have recently quoted as an indication of his great wisdom, but that I always took as off-the-cuff remarks that he didnít like journalists bothering him and always asking about predicting earthquakes.
Doel:And this was a means of simply keeping distance.
Sykes:Right. There are statements to that effect in his 1958 book.
Doel:When was the conference at Lamont held?
Sykes:I think it was 1967, Ď66 or Ď67.
Doel:And was it [W. Maurice] Ewingís decision to bring the conference to Lamont?
Sykes:No, it was Jack Oliverís.
Doel:It was Oliverís. And as you say, Jack had gotten very interested in that because of attending the conference. Had he done any work in that field before —
Sykes:Well, I think the one thing that he did do, and he was the thesis advisor of Brian Isacks, and Bryanís main thesis project was running some very high-gain instruments at high frequency to detect very small micro-earthquakes and even ultra micro-earthquakes. Brian ran these instruments in the Ogdensburg, New Jersey zinc mine and detected some small earthquakes from New Jersey and adjacent parts of New York. There were some people in Japan like Asada who were also working on micro-earthquakes. I think that that was one of the aspects that intrigued Jack Oliver. He also then put together some portable instruments and in fact some of the first portable instruments were used by Bob Page and Tosi Matumoto in the field for I think four different sets of recording after the 1964 Alaskan earthquake. Those instruments then were run on car batteries, they used a lot of electricity, and over the next few years they were made much more lightweight and of low power drain, so they were much more portable.
Doel:What was aiding those technological developments? Was it in part the funding that was coming into seismology for other applications, or was it something you continued to work in traditional ways?
Sykes:Well, I think that one thing that became apparent, particularly from Asadaís work, was that earth noise was generally very low at high frequencies. By high frequencies, I mean say ten to a hundred hertz. For a long time seismologists had run instruments in what would be the standard short-period pass band very close to one hertz, and they would run them such that they were limited by earth noise at that point.
Sykes:Oliver then became interested in being able to detect smaller events by taking advantage of the lower noise at frequencies. In fact, some of the components could be bought off the shelf, and people in the petroleum industry, exploration, had long been doing recording at some of those higher frequencies. This was something that went on in the late seventies, early eighties and was to become of greater interest in monitoring a nuclear test ban.
Sykes:It became possible to think about running stations in Eurasia, for example, in Russia itself at shorter distances than most of the U.S. work on nuclear test detection had used very large distances — tens of thousands of kilometers away from events going on in the Soviet Union. Hence, there had been very little work on trying to examine the higher frequency band prior to that. That, in fact, has turned out to be a very rich area for exploration over the last ten years in terms of test ban verification.
Doel:What were your impressions from that meeting that you attended at Lamont in Ď67?
Sykes:Well, I became acquainted for the first time with a lot of leading Japanese seismologists, and it was clear that they were taking the subject seriously. Jack Oliver was, Frank Press was, on earthquake prediction. It was curious that in Japan one very prominent earth scientist, Immamura [?], had done work on prediction and is often credited with detecting a precursor involving changes in vertical motion a few days before a great earthquake in Japan in 1944. After World War II interest in Japan went back to more fundamental studies of earthquakes, some studies of surface waves. Until the time that I started as a graduate student at Lamont, a huge amount of the effort in seismology at Lamont and at Cal Tech [California Institute of Technology] was on surface waves.
Doel:Right. That was very typical indeed of centers of seismology.
Doel:Was there interest in earthquake prediction elsewhere, say, in the Soviet Union or in Europe?
Sykes:Well, we learned later that there was, and that in the Soviet Union that they had started two complex seismological expeditions in Central Asia, one in Garm and one in Talgar in the mid-1950s. They went to places that had had some major earthquakes and did a lot of recording of earthquakes of all various sizes of events to try and understand the earthquake process better. Those programs then developed into earthquake prediction programs probably in the mid-1960s.
Doel:Interesting. And were they also concentrating on the higher frequencies?
Sykes:Not so much.
Doel:Iím just curious which nations were represented at the meeting at Lamont. Was this — Other than the Japanese of course.
Sykes:This was a bilateral meeting —
Doel:Between the U.S. and Japan.
Sykes:Between the U.S. and Japan. In fact, it went on probably for maybe eight or ten different meetings about every two or three years, usually alternating between host countries.
Doel:Did you start attending those regularly thereafter?
Sykes:Yes. So I went to two of them in Japan, and two or three in the United States.
Doel:When did you first feel that you were becoming engaged in this as an active research area?
Sykes:Well, probably in the wake of plate tectonics. I wrote a paper in 1971 on Alaska and the Aleutians that had earthquake prediction in the title, and it was aimed at looking at what were called seismic gaps. A little before that, in the two [Donald] Tobin and Sykes papers in the late 1960s in which we relocated earthquakes in Alaska, we noticed that there were certain places along what were then recognized as the active plate boundary between the North American and the Pacific plates, that had not had big earthquakes in a long time. We merely noted that in our two papers. In my 1971 paper, I used the term seismic gaps. Iím not, in fact, sure, I may have been the first person to use that title. But I was aware that [S.A.] Fiadotof in Russia, working on the far eastern part of the Soviet Union, Kamchatka and the Kuril region, had written a paper in Russian in 1965 which then was translated a few years later, in which he called attention to places that had not had earthquakes in a long time, and identified them as places that were more likely to expect a strain to have built up and to be the sites of large to great earthquakes over the following few decades. He did some similar work for the plate boundary in Japan. Neither of them, however, put long term forecasting or prediction that was on a decadal time scale into a plate tectonic framework. So I was really the first person to do that with my 1971 paper.
Doel:Was that paper well received in your view?
Sykes:Yes. I think it was quite well received and well read. It was in JGR [Journal of Geophysical Research). I had drawn upon some work that John Kelleher had done, and he had been a student of Jack Oliver. I had followed the work that he was doing quite closely. He wrote a paper on South America, looking at the question of places that had not had earthquakes for a long time. He proposed one additional place in the Alaska Aleutian Zone in addition to what Tobin and I had proposed, which is still called the Shumagin seismic gap. So by the time of my 1971 paper, I had picked out I think four places along that whole zone that had not had big earthquakes for a long time. One was in southeast Alaska near Sitka, and within a year of the time that I published my paper a large but not great earthquake occurred and filled in that gap. Another was southeast of Anchorage in what later became known as the Yakataga [?] seismic gap, in which I and others had been aware that that zone had ruptured in two great earthquakes in 1899. The Shumagin region is located at the western end of the Alaska peninsula. Then there was a region in the Russian part of the Aleutians called the Komandorsky Islands, that had not broken in over a hundred years.
Doel:Iím curious if you found that you were able to get access to the Soviet journals readily enough to know what research was being done on the comparable areas in Siberia.
Sykes:Well, it certainly took a while for Fedotovís papers both to become available and to be translated, but certainly by the 1970s when the United States and the Soviet Union developed an exchange in earthquake prediction — and that goes back to 1974 — there was more information exchanged, more papers flowed back and forth. The Russians tended to publish a lot of things in book form, but it might be a very limited printing. So it was often difficult, unless someone sent you one of those books, to get a copy of them. One of the interesting things that we did a little bit later on in looking at the Shumagin region off the Alaska peninsula, and this is part of a paper that was published by John Davies and Klaus Jacob, Jerry [Jerome] Kisslinger, whose father is a geophysicist, and me in 1981. Kisslinger was a Russian undergraduate major at Columbia College. He worked part time for us doing translations. We were very interested in going back to the Russian period of ownership of Alaska and exploring more original sources.
Doel:Thatís very interesting.
Sykes:In addition to some of the standard ones that were listed in U.S. catalogs, Jerry was able to find at the Library of Congress several things that we didnít know were there, in Russian, including one important paper by a scientist named Durochin, who was an engineer who visited southern Alaska and the Aleutians in the mid-nineteenth century, and wrote about earthquakes in that period of time. So we were able to fill in some holes in terms of time in which there were Russians in the region extending all along the Alaska peninsula, Kodiak Island, and then near Sitka.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. Iím curious if you were also looking at literary sources and broadly at accounts of earthquakes, or did you focus on the scientific expeditions?
Sykes:We focused mainly on the scientific things, but we were after anything we could get. There was one Russian Orthodox priest named Viniaminov who wrote about earthquakes and volcanos, but he also had many other things to say that were part of his journals and books.
Doel:Yes. Thatís very interesting. One other thing that I just want to make sure we cover it in appropriate time, in 1970 you became advisor to New York State and in part on earth hazards. Was this part of your growing concern with these sorts of environmental issues, or did it have a separate origin?
Sykes:No, it had a separate origin. As I mentioned, Brian Isacks had run this one sensitive station at the mine in Ogdensburg, New Jersey, and also another station to the north of there in Sterling Forest. There were very few modern stations operating in the eastern United States. And so, as a young assistant professor, I got some money from the Sloan Foundation to put in some of these high-frequency stations. I probably got that money around 1969, and we slowly started putting in some stations, one in fact, first at the prison at Attica in western New York which was later moved to another site in that area, and several stations in the Adirondacks. It grew to what was a network at its maximum of about thirty-five stations in various parts of New York, northern New Jersey, and western Vermont. So, as a result, one of the things that we picked up purely by accident was, after the station had been moved from the prison in Attica to a nearby fairly quiet location, a lot of small earthquakes. I believe that was probably Ď71, 1970 or Ď71. And we had been very much aware of similar swarms of earthquakes that had happened near Denver as a result of injection in a deep well —
Doel:Where there was a clear demonstration of it.
Sykes:Right. In the 1960s. And so we conveyed this information to the state geologist of New York, Jim [James] Davis, who then conveyed it then to the Department of Environmental Conservation. They discovered that these events were right near some wells that had been drilled for salt mining, What was done would be to drill some wells a few hundred feet apart and pump fresh water into one so as to hydrofracture or break the rock such that you could put in fresh water at one, dissolve the salt and pump out a salt brine. A pipeline, in fact, was put into operation between there and Niagara Falls to furnish Hooker Chemical Co. with salt brine that was then utilized with inexpensive electricity at Niagara Falls for making chlorine.
Doel:Yes. One thing I was interested in, how did others at Lamont react to the emerging interest in earthquake predictions? Did many regard it as central to Lamontís mission, or did it seem to be somewhat outside it to them?
Sykes:I think that there was a variety of interests. Several people who worked on micro-earthquakes probably used them more to understand the general distribution of earthquakes rather than prediction. But say John Kelleher was working on seismic gaps, I was, Jack Oliver certainly encouraged that, and, in fact, Kelleher, Oliver and I wrote a paper on seismic gaps in 1973 that looked at quite a few areas around the circum-Pacific region.
Doel:I was just wondering if anyone sensed or argued that this was too far into applied areas to really fit into Lamontís culture or what did people think of the subject.
Sykes:No, I donít think so. And but itís clear, certainly in retrospect, that we were one of the few groups that was looking at the longer term, several decades. That grew out of our experience with plate tectonics, of realizing that the stresses that are released in a big earthquake along a plate boundary are typically built up over something like a hundred years. Great earthquakes donít strike twice in a very short amount of time at exactly the same place; it takes a recharging time.
Sykes:But whereas a number of people took an interest in prediction on a time scale of days to months, we tended to focus more on the longer term end.
Doel:And Cal Techís interest, was it growing in parallel as you recall?
Sykes:I think Cal Tech had virtually no interest in some of the longer term things, with the possible exception of [Hiro] Kanamoric. He did come to an international conference that we at Lamont organized in 1980. It was held at Mohonk [Mountain House]. He talked about changes in moderate-size earthquakes and quiescence prior to large earthquakes. I think a number of people at Cal Tech had virtually no interest in prediction, and still donít today.
Doel:Was this something as this field began to develop in the United States, was it something that fit well within the SSA [Seismological Society of America]? Were you presenting at those meetings, or did other organizations seem to be Ė-
Sykes:I was probably presenting more at AGU [American Geophysical Union] meetings than SSA meetings. Occasionally at SSA meetings. Some of the work on earthquakes in the northeastern U.S. — that work would tend to be presented more at the eastern section of the Seismological Society.
Doel:It was 1973, if I remember correctly, that you published on the dilatancy model?
Doel:Dilatancy model, indeed. I wonder how that came about.
Sykes:What happened was in 1971 the big international meeting of the IUGG [International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics] was held in Moscow. Paul Pomeroy had previously, when he was at Lamont, learned Russian and had received an invitation to visit Central Asia. He was one of the first Americans probably since the 1920s as a scientist to visit Russia, let alone Central Asia. He went to Talgar in eastern Kazakhstan, where [Igor] Nersesov was the prime person working on prediction and small earthquakes. I wrote to Nersesov about visiting there following the 1971 meeting but I heard nothing back and I had to make my plans, pay money to Intourist for some regular tours, including going to Samarbond in Central Asia. Then a few weeks before the meeting I received a telegram that I would be the guest of the Soviet Academy in visiting Garm, which turned out to be one of the other expeditions that Nersesov was the leader of, in this case in Tajikistan. So I visited Garm, and, in fact, gave one of the first talks that any people there can remember having heard about plate tectonics.
Doel:Is that right?
I became acquainted with work that they had done on a technique of looking at the ratio of the PTOS velocities or their travel times and looking for variations as a function of time. They had proposed that this was a precursor to moderate to large earthquakes. So when I came back I talked about this Soviet work at a meeting in Aspen, an invited meeting. There was a lot of excitement then. That was probably Ď72. And about that time we started having a sequence of earthquakes, a swarm at Blue Mountain Lake, New York in the center of the Adirondacks. There was a swarm there in 1971 and again in Ď73. One graduate student, Yash Aggarwal, worked on those sequences and found similar changes in that ratio of travel times or velocities similar to what the Russians had found.
We published our work on that. There was a lot of excitement about that. That led Aggarwal and [Christopher] Scholz and I to write our Science paper on earthquake prediction and to propose that the physical change that was going on in the earth was the phenomena of dilatancy. It occurs close to failure in rocks whereby cracks tend to close up. This would result in some of the various changes in physical parameters. Fluid pressure would change as well prior to large earthquakes. That idea then was tested out by several people. I, in fact, think, and Iíve talked very recently to Chris Scholz, that those tests were not very good of the idea. Several people in California looked at quarry blasts, i.e. timed industrial explosions, but over path lengths that were a hundred kilometers long or so, that passed close to magnitude five earthquakes.
They reported that there were no significant changes in the travel times from before to after those events. Those negative results were taken by most of the seismological community as indicating that the theory of dilatancy as applied to prediction was not correct. I became convinced, however, that using these velocities was a very difficult ďrow to hoe,Ē because your sources were typically at depth, at say ten kilometers for the San Andreas Fault, and you really needed to have seismic ray paths that went very close to those events. If you had paths that were a hundred kilometers long sampling a region that was only ten kilometers in size preparing for a magnitude five-ish earthquake, it was very likely that the seismic waves would diffract around the sides and that you in fact would not see a signal.
Doel:Yes. That over these very long path lengths that it would dilute the most interesting phenomena that you were using.
Sykes:Right. So what was a subject of great interest rather quickly evaporated in the United States. In some ways itís come back in that Stuart Crampin in Scotland has done a lot of work on fluid-filled cracks that are oriented, that these cracks have a preferential orientation and that you might expect leading up to an earthquake that there could be changes in certain directions either perpendicular or parallel to those cracks but not in all directions. Itís not an area of much investigation in the United States right now. I think that in Russia, where it was originally found, it looks now as if a lot of the changes that happened were as a result of variations of earthquakes in space, and that the travel-time ratio, even if it changed with time, was certainly distributed very heterogeneously in space. You had to be very careful about sampling.
Doel:Sometimes limitation in instrumentation as well as the method at hand.
Sykes:And of having events that you can use for sampling. I think one of the big problems with the dilatancy hypothesis is that it requires quite high stress for it to occur. Work was developing indicating that particularly along very active plate boundaries of either the strike-slip type or subduction type, the stress was, in fact, quite low. It was not clear then as to whether dilatancy would even set in under such low stresses, and I regard that as a more fundamental problem. Nevertheless, weíve recognized that there are certain places along the faults called asparities where stronger rocks are in contact and it takes a higher stress to break them, to have fault motion occur in those places. More work could well be done on sampling asparities to see whether premonitory changes take place in those strong stuck places, rather than trying to sample the whole rupture zone itself in some average way.
Doel:Has that been the tendency in earthquake prediction work in your view, over the broader —
Certainly in the seventies and eighties, it was aimed at a broad perspective, when several of us wrote papers on seismic gaps. They involved looking at average properties of big earthquakes, the average amount of slip over dimensions of several hundred kilometers. The last paper that I was involved [on gaps] in was in 1979. Two of my students, [William] McCann and [Stuart] Nishenko, wrote a follow-up paper for the 1980 symposium. It was published in a Ewing volume of the AGU on earthquake prediction in 1981. I think that after that we recognized that we needed to stand back and take another look at seismic gaps; that we had not brought in the rate of relative plate motion, and we hadnít attempted to bring in variations in slip along rupture zones of earthquakes.
So Nishenko and I took a new tack, probably starting about 1982, of attempting to look at places that had had several earthquakes in nearly the same place, and to look at the average interval of time between them and to use probability theory to make a probabilistic estimate for a given fault segment, typically tens to hundreds of kilometers long, for a few of the active plate boundaries. Our first forecasts were for twenty year times periods. Essentially the things that went into those forecasts were the average time interval of previous earthquakes at that place, or if we didnít have that — and we didnít have it for a lot of places, of what was the average displacement in the last earthquake and then dividing that by the rate of plate motion to come up with some estimate of the time until the next earthquake.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. And were these primarily already the California quakes that you were —?
Sykes:The first paper that we published on this was in JGR [Journal of Geophysical Research] in 1984, and we looked at the entire San Andreas Fault, divided it up into about twelve to fifteen segments. We also looked at the San Jacinto Fault and the Imperial Fault. The paper was completed in Ď83. In 1984 it was published. Those were twenty year forecasts. What we estimated was that there were certain places, like much of the 1906 rupture zone in Northern California, where the greatest displacements occurred to the north of San Francisco. And it became then quite evident that not enough plate motion had been re-accumulated there, from our knowledge of long term rates of slip along that part of the San Andreas to re-accumulate the five meters or so of slip that had occurred in that region [in 1906]. So we estimated low probabilities for the region to the north of San Francisco. We came up with some high probabilities, but with quite a bit of uncertainty for the southeastern end of the 1906 rupture. It was in that segment that the displacements in 1906 were the smallest. Nishenko and I also argued that that segment had broken in a large earthquake in 1838 that clearly had ruptured the peninsular segment of the San Andreas to the south of San Francisco. And we argued, based on the intensities at Monterrey, which was then the capitol of Northern Spanish California, that the 1838 earthquake had ruptured as far to the southeast as the 1906 earthquake.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Again youíve got historical records that come into play.
Doel:That you are utilizing.
Sykes:Thatís right. And you could imagine in 1838 there were very few people who were writing anything of an historical nature that has survived. But nevertheless, we felt that there was some strong, but not overwhelming, evidence that the same fault segment that had broken in 1906 — that is, the southeastern end of the 1906 rupture zone — had previously broken in 1838. So it didnít take too much imagination to subtract the two dates and get 68 years and add that to 1906 and to come up with, on that basis, that it appeared to be a little bit overdue for that region to have another earthquake.
Doel:I want to cover this in detail, including the work on the Parkfield prediction and so on. I do want to ask you though, what Iíd meant to ask you before, was Phil Abelson, still editor of Science when you proposed the paper and had it accepted in earthquake prediction?
Sykes:I think so.
Doel:I was just wondering whether this seemed at all controversial, or whether that editorial group and editor of Science saw this as —?
Sykes:Well, I think fortunately the person that reviewed the paper for Science, Jack Healy, was excited about the idea and thought that it should be published. In fact, I think we had originally entitled our paper ďThe Physical Basis for Earthquake Prediction,Ē and he suggested that we be a little more modest and say ďA Physical ModelĒ and we accepted that. It was published. I think Abelson then went on to publish another paper by Bruce Bolt. Bruce Bolt has tended to be a fairly conservative person who tends to pooh-pooh a lot of new ideas.
Doel:And he had published a piece that was critical about the idea of prediction?
Sykes:I think so, but it went back to a whole controversy that went back to at least the [Frank] Press report after the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, that is to be done about mitigating the effects of earthquakes. The Press report had emphasized earthquake prediction. There was a comparable report by the earthquake engineers. It was chaired by [George] Housner, who was also from Cal Tech at the time, as was Frank Press. The latter threw cold water on earthquake prediction, saying itís too nebulous, and that federal money should be put into earthquake engineering and constructing buildings to be safer. So Bolt tended to emphasize more of the engineering field. Really there was only some compromise by the time the U.S. Government formulated the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program in about 1977 in which from the executive branch — — seen from the Ė-
Doel:Executive point of view.
Sykes:Right. That President Fordís Science Advisor, Siever, put together a group that involved both engineers, seismologists and geologists to come up with a work plan for what was to be the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. I was involved in preparing that document.
Doel:What role did you play in this?
Sykes:I was one of about twenty people who were on the panel. These were people like myself from outside the government, but each governmental agency had an interest in this and had their own representatives who were seated there with us. So it tended to be a meeting of probably forty to fifty people. We did come up with a program that I think was balanced; it had a big chunk for earthquake engineering that was ultimately funded by Congress through the National Science Foundation [NSF]. It had work on prediction, it was largely for the U.S. Geological Survey; it had an element of fundamental studies that was assigned to the earth sciences division of NSF. I spoke yesterday at our last session about how I did not think that NSF used that money wisely, and especially as mandated by Congress.
Doel:Right. One thing that Iím also interested, how big did you regard the community of people interested in earthquake prediction in the seventies and the 1980s? Roughly how many people were there in the U.S. interested?
Sykes:I would say it was certainly under 100 people. There were people at Menlo Park, in the U.S. Geological Survey interested in this. One person who graduated at Cal Tech was a student of Jim Brune when he was there — this is Max Wyss — has worked on earthquake prediction ever since. He did a postdoc at Lamont, then went to the University of Colorado, and is now at the University of Alaska. He has consistently worked on earthquake prediction. There have been several people at the U.S. Geological Survey. But it became very clear, and itís become clearer with time, that the framework from which particularly people at Menlo Park viewed prediction was earthquake prediction equals short term prediction, that is, a few days. They tended to be very concentrated on Northern California, not even knowing that much about what was going on in Southern California.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Thatís interesting. And again, as you say, itís out at the Menlo Park branch of the Survey.
Sykes:Thatís right. There were a lot of people who were studying earthquakes, work that I think was applicable and certainly it was within the mandate of funding of the NEHRP [?] Program. They were studying small earthquakes and running seismic networks in various places, as say opposed to now there is a lot more work on studying the deep interior of the earth in which earthquakes are really used as a probe, like an X-ray. I think that those techniques, while yielding some very important basic information about the deep interior of the earth, probably have little bearing upon learning about the shallow earthquake process and about prediction.
Doel:When you began the work in California, did you have contact with state officials or others who saw political dimensions to the question of making long term forecasts? 
Sykes:Walter Cronkite [of CBS] sent a TV crew there to record everything that was going on. I think there were more members of the press there than scientists. The press tended to regard it as, here was this great person that this great prediction was going to be endorsed and this was going to be a great story, or this person had this great idea and these other conservative scientists would not go along with it. I think there was the sense on the part of the press as if this was a kind of jury, an unbiased jury, that would listen to all of the evidence and evaluate it like something like a court of law. Brady was a person who was well known to many of us. He had been a student of Bill Brace at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in rock mechanics, and he was a person who Brace felt least proud of, of his various Ph.D.s. Brady had some nutty ideas, and he had a scheme in which he thought that he could make predictions right down to a few days. But a couple years ahead. It certainly was evident to me after he started talking for ten minutesí worth that this was just a lot of gibberish. After about a day and a half I told the chairman that I had had enough, more than enough, and here we were just forced to sit and listen to this guy go on with gibberish. I left the meeting on the grounds that I felt that it was a real waste of my time and that I hadnít, as a member of the committee, been consulted on what was going to be the format for questioning him and the huge amount of time that had been given to him.
Doel:Yes. Given the intense press coverage, were you asked about your departure when you left?
Sykes:But you can imagine that if I and many others that had the sense after ten minutes of listening to a lot of this gibberish — and it was pure gibberish — that it was difficult to stay awake. And there were Walter Cronkiteís cameras recording us yawning, and so it was a real Catch-22. Couldnít say anything; you were just supposed to sit there and listen, like a passive member.
Doel:So the cameras being there affected the way the meeting was conducted.
Oh, absolutely. Then there was one person from AID, the Agency for International Development, from their Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, who was a big promoter of Brady and of his colleague Spence. Spence was involved more peripherally in this prediction. The AID official made statements to the effect of: here was the Isaac Newton of the twentieth century, Brady. This guy was responsible for U.S. spending of moneys for earthquake assistance in Latin America, and I just felt that he was quite out to lunch. So he was not helpful at all. I think, in fact, that the final report did criticize his involvement. I felt that I learned a lot of lessons and particularly lessons then that Iíve learned as I discussed yesterday of group dynamics, of how to run a good meeting.
I later attended a meeting, Iím not sure that it was a NEPEC meeting, I was not chairman, but it had to do with some data in Southern California that Cal Tech had collected. The USGSís press office went to work and distributed a press release. A hundred people from the press showed up, and they were fully expecting that there was going to be a big revelation. Here were a bunch of scientists who just started talking about arcane aspects of seismology. The press saw it not getting to the point. They were trying to corner people in the hail to get stories out of them. Another phenomena that had arisen was that there was one very savvy reporter, George Alexander from the LA Times. A number of people leaked information to him, and one was the case of some changes in radon that had been observed by one group at Cal Tech. So that became front page news. George was very good at — he was a science writer and having political savvy of what things were good front page copy — coaxed scientists to come out with things.
Also the thing that was happening, and that was that without some overall review of what is going on, which wasnít happening, various scientists when they would come up with something that seemed suspicious to them, felt that they had to go public with it or at least leak it, because they didnít want to be in the position of holding onto this information and having kept it to themselves if, in fact, there was a damaging earthquake and loss of life, that followed. So coming back then to my becoming chairman of NEPEC in 1984, I corresponded with Dallas Peck, the Director of the Survey, over what would be the ground rules for NEPEC. One of the things that I wanted to have were periodic reviews of various critical areas, but critical on a time scale of years to decades. I proposed that we would start with Southern and Northern California and move on to some other places like Alaska. NEPEC could be a forum that was the bridge between the scientific and the disaster preparedness communities and other users of scientific information.
Doel:And Dallas Peck felt this was the appropriate mission for the —?
Sykes:Yes. At least as part of the stated mission was that NEPEC was to review various predictions of earthquakes and to make an assessment of their scientific validity and to convey this information to the Director of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Doel:Did you also feel it was part of your mandate to evaluate what kinds of preparedness steps ought to be taken in the more practical realm, or did you stay away from those sorts of things?
Sykes:No, this developed with Parkfield, so maybe letís come back to that in a minute. But the original mandate was to review predictions that were made. I felt that the council should be paying more attention to things that were less specific but more scientifically interesting and credible, of certain areas that a lot of us shared concern about but were not something in which we were going to stick out our necks and say there was going to be an earthquake there on a certain day, or even next year. But NEPEC then could be a forum to which scientists could bring information that then could get into the broader scientific arena. If necessary then, it would be possible to have a press conference if there was something important to convey. More emphasis should be placed on this kind of longer term — and by longer term, I think it was a decadal time scale that we had in mind. Dallas Peck wrote back to me that yes, that would be part of our mandate. That would be part of my mandate.
Sykes:I also had an agreement with John Filson, who was head of the Office of Earthquakes, Volcanos and Engineering in USGS and who had asked me to take on the job of being chairman of NEPEC, that the PR office at USGS would not automatically put out flyers to the press that would just be drawing people in the press to various meetings of NEPEC. Hence scientists mainly discussing somewhat arcane but we thought important various pieces of information, things that were likely to be sensational. At the same time, however, when people did make specific predictions we would evaluate those. With time, I think those things happened. It became clear that our mandate under the legislation setting up the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program was that we were to evaluate U.S. earthquakes only, unless asked to do otherwise, as with Brady-Spence. When some predictions were brought to us of magnitude four and a half earthquakes, we decided that while scientifically interesting, that we would not rule on any societal actions that needed to be taken for an earthquake that was not likely to cause any damage. That threshold for California was somewhere around magnitude to five to five and a half.
Doel:Yes. Did you feel comfortable with that arrangement as —?
Sykes:Yes. In fact, I was the one who proposed that.
Doel:Yes. And equally, did you feel comfortable with limiting the discussion to earthquakes in the U.S. except in cases of invitation to do so?
Sykes:Right. I felt that we had enough to do to evaluate what was going on in the U.S., and that it could be left to other forums like the U.S.-Japan program, various arrangements with China and the Soviet Union for discussing what was going on there. It may well be that people would draw, in discussing say, Southern California, some ideas from other places, but that we were evaluating Southern California or faults in it, and we were not evaluating regions within Russia except as examples. At that time there was a requirement that committees of this type, that the meeting still had to be published in the Federal Register. They were, but I think no members of the press showed up for any of the meetings in the four years that I was chairman, and I was, in fact, quite relieved that we wouldnít have George Alexander sitting there and after the first of two days of meetings of having something appear in the LA Times the next morning. One of the things that served as well was that I let members of NEPEC know that if there was something important to be conveyed beyond NEPEC that right away that I would convey the results of every meeting to the director of the U.S. Geological Survey and that if necessary we would have a press conference. In fact, there was not a need during my four years at NEPEC to do that.
Sykes:There was the format of having an executive session that would be closed, only to NEPEC members. We would typically have a meeting for two days, and the last say three hours we would come to some conclusions, and that was in a closed meeting. That was particularly true when we debated some predictions that were brought to us. Max Wyss brought some predictions of small earthquakes in central California to us. We were asked by Leon Knopoff to evaluate a prediction — this is in Ď87 or Ď88 — that Keilis-Borok and his colleagues in the Soviet Union had made for a large earthquake in California.
Doel:Interesting. He and Keilis-Borok were fairly close, as I recall.
Sykes:Yes. And continue to be so. They have worked closely together. We did arrange to have Keilis-Borok with us for a day of meetings, and did evaluate that prediction. We brought in some outside people as consultants. I think that he felt that we had done a very thorough job of evaluating his predictions in a scientific way, but he wasnít that happy that we hadnít endorsed them as being yet ready for societal use in the United States. He said that several of the comments that had been made by particularly the consultants that we brought in were some really good criticisms.
Doel:How contentious or uniform were these meetings that you would have when you would evaluate predictions? Did most of the committee members, or all of them pretty much agree on the standards and criteria, or were there discussions about that?
Sykes:Well, we had kind of two classes of things that we did. We had several meetings that were almost solely devoted to examining regions. Then we had other meetings in which in whole or in part they were to evaluate various predictions. The first meeting that I chaired was where the long term prediction was brought by USGS scientists, [William] Bakun, [Alan] Lindh, and others, for Parkfield. We had a second meeting devoted to Southern California. So those [the latter type] were typically ones in which we invited people to come. I insisted that there would be an Open File Report put together and published quite quickly after each meeting, and that everyone that came and presented — either people who brought a prediction to us or people who came and gave a talk — that they had to come with a summary or an abstract, that there was a piece of paper that they brought to the meeting that stated what their conclusions were, and that all of their figures would be furnished to us. I had been impressed that in Japan that the Japanese Earthquake Evaluation Commission did a similar thing. This is a way, in fact, then of seeing [publishing] some data rather quickly, much more quickly than by way of the normal publications.
Doel:Interesting. Clearly, as you say, you were observing how other committees of this sort were working in order to —
Sykes:Right. One of the problems, in fact, with Brady was it was very difficult to nail him down as to what his predictions were. They varied with time. It became quite clear then, for example, with Max Wyss, that his predictions for central California with [Robert] Burford involve three earthquakes of about magnitude four and a half in some [fault] segments near Hollister. If all of these ruptured in one event, you would have an earthquake of about magnitude five to five and a half. What they had to say was recorded on tape and it was used to write the Open File Report everyone can read. Soon after that Wyss and Burford withdrew the prediction for one of those small earthquakes. An earthquake did occur within the time frame stipulated in one of those areas. So I would regard that as a successful prediction, but of a modest sized earthquake. They then wrote a paper before that earthquake happened that was different than their prediction that was made in our meeting. I think that it was very important to have a written record. In fact, the secretary, who was a member of USGS, ran a tape recorder throughout the proceedings of those meetings.
Doel:And transcripts were made of that?
Sykes:No, transcripts were not made, but the secretary used those for coming up with minutes that I then edited. I edited them for the open file report that was soon published. USGS has pretty much stopped doing that, and I think that is a big mistake, because there is a continuing need for having reviews of areas, of there being an opportunity for scientists to come and to express their concern about some area and to have a group listen to them to have this reported without it being necessarily that someone says, ďThis is a prediction that I am making.Ē
Doel:Something less concrete and less potentially —
Sykes:In that gray area. I was concerned that we cover this gray area that was between doing nothing and a very specific prediction.
Doel:Why was that procedure ended, do you know?
Sykes:I think that the next chairman of NEPEC, Tom McKevilly from Berkeley, who had been a member of NEPEC, felt philosophically that NEPEC shouldnít be as quote ďactivistĒ as it had been under me.
Doel:How did he regard it as activist?
Sykes:I think that it was in reviewing those various critical areas. He felt that NEPEC should just be a forum for people bringing predictions. I disagreed with that very much, because I felt that then you put most of your effort and most of the money for the council into evaluating quack predictions. One of the things that I did as chairman, since people would send me various types of forecast predictions, a lot of them not being specific as to time and place, I had the understanding with members of NEPEC that I would circulate these to various members. If any single person wanted to bring them up for discussion, we would bring them up. But otherwise it would be like the Supreme Court —
Doel:Not reviewing a case.
Sykes:Not reviewing a case as a judgment, but that then we wouldnít have a meeting and we wouldnít be spending time on those. We probably met about three times a year. It was fairly often, and usually for some long sessions.
Doel:How much of your time in those years did NEPEC take?
Sykes:Probably twenty percent of it.
Sykes:I did get USGS to agree that they would pay me I think for one month per year. They were a little bit reluctant, but I said otherwise youíre essentially asking Columbia University to act as a charity. I will work more than one month per year, and I did, but that I thought that it was important that the precedent be established of paying the Chairman for at least part of his or her services.
Doel:Thatís an interesting point. What Iím very curious about too is whether there were discussions that you recall about what qualified as a clear prediction for making an earthquake forecast.
Sykes:I think that there was a general sense, and right from the beginning, that it needed to be something that was fairly specific as to place and size of the event, or some range of sizes, of approximate timing, of some sense of the likelihood, and that the prediction would also state what was the scientific methodology that was used for coming up with it. I think these were generally agreed upon. When you asked me were there big discussions, there was in the beginning about, as I said, McKevilly was not in favor of NEPEC taking on by itself a review of critical areas. But most of the council was in favor of my view that we should review various critical areas. I would say that generally what I had to do as chairman was to draw out members. It wasnít necessarily that we had people who were fighting that much; it was making sure that the members of the committee, in fact, expressed their views. Very often I would go around and poll people to make sure that they, in fact, agreed with something, like the endorsement of the USGS long term prediction for Parkfield.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. And did you find that it took that to actually get people to voice opinions on —?
Sykes:There were some people who were quite content just to sit back and listen.
Doel:How remarkable, in retrospect, did the Parkfield prediction seem, among those that you were evaluating at the time?
Sykes:Well, that happened at our first meeting. It was John Filson, who was the person from USGS who asked us to review that prediction. He was the vice chairman of NEPEC and would convey things from the Director of USGS to me as chairman. They wanted to have the Parkfield prediction reviewed. So it was on that basis that NEPEC did have a review of that, and did come to the conclusion that there was a general scientific basis for the Parkfield prediction.
Doel:Was there much debate, as you recall, about what probability to assign to that?
Doel:If I recall correctly, there was one given a ninety percent probability over the date range.
Thatís right. That number was brought to us by the members of USGS who brought the prediction, and that was merely stated in the rather short summary that I wrote of recommendations to the Director of USGS. Itís certainly something that I felt that as time went on and I learned more of the ropes about NEPEC and also of bringing people out, of specifically asking, ďWhat do you think about this number?Ē Thatís something that I had wished in retrospect that I had asked people to go on record. By two years later, after we had reviewed both Southern and Northern California, I then asked various members to, of those faults and fault segments that we thought were of greater concern, to prioritize them one, two and three. Most of the members did do that, and thatís published in one of those open file reports.
Almost everyone, perhaps everyone, put Parkfield on their top priority list. There were certain areas that werenít even on that list. For the San Andreas to the north of San Francisco, I think there was uniformity of opinion that it was not a place to expect a large earthquake for yet many decades. One area in which we did have debate that went on for perhaps three different meetings had to do with the southeastern part of the 1906 rupture zone. It was essentially a debate between Lamont and USGS. Nishenko and I had given that region a high probability but with quite a large uncertainty for a twenty-year time scale for rupturing in a magnitude seven earthquake.
There were a couple of different opinions in USGS. One was that the, what we now call the Loma Prieta segment, which is mainly what weíre talking about, had ruptured in an earthquake in 1865 of about magnitude six and a half, that the 1838 earthquake had not ruptured as far to the southeast as Nishenko and I had concluded, and that 1838 had stopped at about Route 17, the route between San Jose and the coast. There was a widely held view in USGS, and it continued, that the magnitude to be expected for that segment was that of 1865, which was about magnitude six and a half. Then Thatcher started working on some of the geodetic data in which he claimed that the displacement in that segment in 1906 was about two and a half meters, and it was quite a bit larger than the surface displacements of which one good estimate that was at depth in Wrights tunnel, one and a half meters.
Chris Scholz from Lamont weighed in with a paper in which he largely followed what Nishenko and I had done, talked more about the transition and the style of faulting a little bit to the north of there, at whatís called Black Mountain. He argued that the probability of an earthquake there was high as well, using the one and a half meters of displacement, largely in Wrightís tunnel, and that that segment then had a higher probability of rupture. He also forecast a magnitude for about seven. There was yet another paper that was presented at one of these NEPEC sessions by two Lamont students, Pat Williams and then Nishenko. Nishenko may have had his Ph.D. by then.
Doel:But clearly the group at Lamont were the ones contributing to this issue and the opponents seemed —
Sykes:Yes, the opponents then were in USGS, but they were two types, and —
Doel:Let me pause — You said there were two types.
Sykes:One that would not be considered to be an opponent view was that of Al Lindh and some of his co-workers, in which they argued that the probability was fairly high of there being an earthquake in about the southern fifty rather seventy-five kilometers of the 1906 rupture zone and that the magnitude to be expected was the six and a half, based on the view that 1865 was the type of earthquake for that area. Then there was another view which was quite a negative view, by Thatcher and then was published in JGR after it had been discussed extensively in NEPEC by Thatcher and Lizowski that claimed that the whole ninety kilometer southeastern part of the 1906 rupture zone had had a high enough displacement [in 1906] that it was unlikely to have a large earthquake for the next thirty years, in other words within the twentieth century. I think that before the 1989 earthquake happened, there were some other developments that did take place. But anyway, 1989 did occur within that region.
Doel:Something that you would regard then as a successful prediction came out of it.
Sykes:Right. I very much regard it as a successful prediction. Thatcher and Lizowski have recently published another paper in JGR saying that those displacements were two and a half meters [in 1906] from the geodetic data, that this was not the earthquake that was predicted, it occurred on a fault that was about two kilometers away, and had a different dip. Therefore one should still expect a big earthquake there eventually. I regard that as quite incorrect, but it still led to a lot of people to say, ďWell, thereís one view and thereís the other view, and so therefore we donít know whether it was predicted or not.Ē I think that it is possible to come to a conclusion based on a really careful examination of the scientific data.
Doel:Interesting. Yes. How do you feel most members of this community feel? Do they back your point of view that there is already an ability to make those kinds of predictions?
Sykes:I think with the failure of the Parkfield prediction that there has been less interest in prediction, both from an official point of view within the USGS and within the scientific community, so that people just arenít knowledgeable and they donít know. That disturbs me that people are not doing a really critical analysis and thinking for themselves about whether this was a successful prediction or not.
Doel:I know that you feel that the failure of the Parkfield prediction certainly within the time frame that had been offered was a fairly substantial event in terms of the work of this community.
Sykes:Yes. But maybe letís come back to that in just a minute, in fact coming back to NEPEC. In 1986 when I asked people to rate these various places, it turned out that for what we now call the Loma Prieta zone, that it was one of the few segments for which there were two quite contrasting views. About half of us rated it one, of top priority, and about half of the people rated it three. For almost every other segment in California, or area, there was not a strong bimodal distribution of views. When I conducted this review in 1986 in California, I think other members of NEPEC were very concerned about what would be called putting ďall the eggs in the Parkfield basket.Ē And it wasnít that we wanted to see Parkfield discontinued or equipment moved out of there —
Doel:By then there was a considerable investment in terms of installing —
Sykes:Right. But by then the amount of money to the USGS had become level funded, and, in fact, when corrected for inflation, was going down. So USGS was not making a strong effort to try and drum up more money. This was during the Reagan and Bush administrations that they were having a hard time getting their budgets even level funded. In fact, there was one attempt in 1982 at the beginning of the Reagan Administration, to cut out the earthquake program altogether by two members who were then in OMB [Office of Management and Budget] within the Reagan administration, people who had been in the federal government at the time of the Newmark-Siever report that I had mentioned before that at the end of the Ford administration had set in motion the executive branch plan for National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. These two people proposed a fifty percent cut in the budget for the first budget year planned by the Reagan Administration, to be followed by going to zero the next year. And so a bunch of us then got on the telephone and wrote letters to members of Congress, those of us who were outside of, that were not employed by the federal government. That decision was turned around but we never were able to get things back up in terms of more funding. Funding was increased for just one year as a result of the 1989 earthquake.
Doel:When you say that you engaged various members of Congress to overturn the decision coming from OMB, did you meet directly with people from Congress, or did it take the form of letters and phone calls?
Sykes:This took largely the form of letters.
Sykes:It helped that there were people from a number of different states who were receiving funding, and not just California.
Doel:Which other states were being funded?
Sykes:Well, by then, Utah, Alaska, Washington, South Carolina, New York. So anyway, as a result of that, halfway through my chairmanship of NEPEC, I had people do a review of critical areas, and we had also evaluated Alaska by then. Thus, we had something like eight to ten areas that we would rate highly in needing intensified study, before one would engage in prediction. There were areas that we were concerned about enough on a few decadal time scale that we felt needed monitoring with a multiplicity of different types of techniques and instruments along the line of the Parkfield experiment. We thought we couldnít rely upon Parkfield alone, particularly we couldnít rely upon it to necessarily give us information about a magnitude seven and a half earthquake. That then resulted in my presenting that information to a meeting of the National Academy of Sciencesí National Research Council has a standing Committee on Seismology. I presented that to them.
Doel:How was it received?
Sykes:I think it was received well. In fact, I put together a map showing the prioritizations by members of NEPEC, and essentially argued that we needed to have more monitoring and more study in a number of areas if we were to make progress on time scale of a few decades in understanding the earthquake generation process and in prediction. That resulted — Letís see, I then presented that as well to the Director of USGS.
Doel:Was that still Dallas Peck?
Sykes:That was still Dallas Peck, and I think that was received well by him. I think maybe before that I then also presented this to Frank Press, who was then head of the National Academy of Sciences. He recommended that NEPEC do an evaluation of the chance of there being a great earthquake in Southern California. I then took that, along with John Filson, to Dallas Peck. He agreed that we would go forward with a committee that would be appointed, that it would not be NEPEC that would do the study, but it would be a working group that would do the report. The report would then be evaluated by NEPEC. Some of the members would be the same, but we would try to have a lot of people that were not direct members of the two [the working group and NEPEC].
Doel:Were there any people you particularly wanted to bring into that evaluative group not in NEPEC?
Sykes:Well, one of the people who we came up with as a potential chairman was Lloyd Cluff, who had previously worked at Woodward Clyde Associates. He was a well-known geologist, and he had recently gone to work for Pacific Gas & Electric to head up their geosciences department. When it was proposed to him to take on this task, he had two stipulations. One was that he was concerned enough about the Hayward Fault in Northern California that we needed to evaluate both Northern and Southern California. I think everyone accepted that view. He also, however, did not want his name emblazoned on the front of the document as being the chairman. That has caused some confusion. Just the members of the committee are listed on the document, without a person being listed as the chair.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Was he listed as chairman?
Sykes:No, heís not listed as chairman. In fact, Jim [James] Detriecht from USGS really acted as a co-chair along with him. Nishenko was a member of that group who was not a member of NEPEC. He did a lot of the probabilistic calculations. That document probably took at least a good year to complete, and then it was reviewed by NEPEC. It also was reviewed by — California has its own earthquake prediction evaluation council. They reviewed it and then the document was published in 1988. Thus, it became then an official document that showed these approximate probabilities for various fault segments. It was updated after the 1989 earthquake by another working group just for Northern California that Chris Scholz served on. They show the Loma Prieta segment as then having a low probability of rupturing in the next thirty years, which is their time scale. They certainly at that time did not accept the Thatcher view that, sorry folks, the earthquake that some people say was predicted was not it.
Doel:Yes. How do you feel about how this field is being regarded in the moment? Do you feel that there is increasing critical interest coming back to it?
Sykes:I think there is now more negative criticism. There have been several papers published by Bob Geller in Japan, who is a U.S.-trained seismologist and a professor at Earthquake Institute of Tokyo University. He argues that earthquakes are not predictable and therefore we shouldnít be spending money attempting to do so. This has been taken up by Dave [David] Jackson, who is now, and I regard it as unfortunate, chairman of the Southern California Earthquake Center, and one of his colleagues at UCLA, Yan Kagan, and also by several people in Britain. Tan Main wrote an article in News and Views in Nature within the last year saying that earthquake prediction is difficult if not impossible, and citing that earthquakes are an example of a self-organized critical process in which any small event can, at any time and place, develop into a big event. I think that is quite wrong. After 1906 the stress in a very broad region surrounding the rupture zone of the 1906 earthquake was lowered and the rate of magnitude five earthquakes, of moderate size earthquakes, went way down for the next fifty years. That segment of the fault was not capable of generating another magnitude seven and a half to eight earthquake for a long time. So right now there have been some loud noises made that earthquakes are not predictable. They are essentially statements about short-term prediction.
Doel:Not about the long, what you had focused on, the long —
Sykes:Right. But I would call that long-term prediction or long-term forecasting, and these other people would just call it hazards assessment. But I think hazards assessment runs the whole gamut from whatís the chance in a million years to cases in California in which we are talking about a thirty year time scale and that these probabilities do vary throughout the cycle of large earthquakes. I have always thought that earthquake prediction involves the whole gamut of time scales from seconds up to a few decades.
Doel:What do you think on those who have made claims, positive and negative? Do their political view influence, do you feel, the kinds of positions that have been taken on the validity of earthquake prediction?
Sykes:Oh, I think they do, and they have influenced government agencies. The USGS has been very gun shy about taking controversial positions, and I think that has become more evident over the last twenty years. They have retreated more into general hazards assessments. I feel that there is a need for a whole variety of things to be done in studying earthquakes: to understand the generation process, the state of stress, earthquake prediction on a whole variety of time scales, of better engineering measures, work on earthquake insurance. We should wisely be looking at a whole variety of things and we shouldnít be having just a program of earthquake prediction, which is mainly what is emphasized in Japan and China.
Doel:Thatís interesting. I remember, Iím thinking back to your involvement in the Test Ban Treaty and nuclear verification. Did you feel on an individual basis that any scientist was persuaded one way or another on the validity of predictions from political factors?
Sykes:From political factors. No, I think that it has more to do with people who are ďlog rollingĒ for their own specific interests, like say studies of the earthís deep interior, or a proposal for spending $250 million for drilling a super-deep hole in the San Andreas with a bunch of horizontal side holes. I think under present budget constraints in the United States, that would be more than two and a half times the total amount of money that is spent annually in the U.S. on all aspects of earthquakes, from engineering to fundamental studies to prediction and hazards. That is not a wise thing to be doing. Thatís the type of thing that was proposed in the 1960s, a la NASA-ese type projects, spending billions of dollars. I just donít think that itís possible now.
Sykes:There are people then who are just psychologically not disposed to sticking their neck out and like to do safe science. If you are going to work on earthquake prediction, you need to be prepared that there are a bunch of obstacles, and one is that there are a bunch of kooks out there with which you will be misidentified, maybe in the media. These things will get into the press. Itís certainly not something in which itís possible to come to a definitive conclusion that there is a 100 percent chance that there is going to be an earthquake in a certain place in a given amount of time. So there are a lot of people who donít want to say something unless they are absolutely sure, and earthquake prediction is not for them.
Doel:I take your point. But I know that our time is going to run a little bit short today, and I want to make sure we cover a few last items. How large an effort is earthquake prediction at Lamont in the moment?
Sykes:Well, Lamont has one of the larger efforts within the United States. I have an active interest in this, Chris Scholz does, Leonardo Seeber, John Ambruster who works with him, Bruce Shaw, who has come into geophysics from physics has an active interest in this. I think that we have a group of people at Lamont that is somewhat unique among universities. There is some very exciting work that Charles Sammis is doing at the University of Southern California, and there is some exciting work thatís going on in the U.S. Geological Survey. But within the U.S. Geological Survey those individuals are few and far between who would say that they are working on prediction or things that are prediction related.
Doel:And you feel this is in part for political pressure that exists on the Survey in the moment, or is it —?
Sykes:I think that it has to do with the way that the USGS group was put together in the late sixties, early seventies in Menlo Park, which was mainly geophysicists and seismologists, very little emphasis on geology, which I think was a mistake. They also regard themselves as doing research. In fact they pretty much left the Parkfield experiment for technicians to run the equipment.
Doel:Is that right? There wasnít much interaction, you felt, between —?
Sykes:There werenít enough people who had an active enough interest in what was going on at Parkfield.
Sykes:The USGS really developed as very big group with a lot of competition then with the universities in rather basic research. One of the things that I did want to say was that I had a major hand in doing — was that when the National Science Foundation first had competitions for science and technology centers, and this is now probably about eight years ago, Cal Tech submitted its own proposal, USC [University of Southern California] submitted its own proposal, and a group of us of which I was the chair submitted a proposal from several universities to work on the physics of earthquakes. Our proposal made it to the last hurdle but then was not funded. I felt quite strongly that neither Cal Tech nor USGS — I mean no, sorry, USC — had enough strength themselves to mount a really major effort of the S & I center type. Neither of them was funded. At one of the U.S.- Japan meetings which was held in California I talked to Rob [Robert] Wesson, who was then head of the Office of Earthquakes, Volcanos and Engineering of USGS, and I said that I thought that it was very important that there be a center for study of Southern California earthquakes; that the work of NEPEC had indicated that Southern California was a critical area for a number of different faults that could produce quite large earthquakes, and that there was not nearly enough coordinated work going on. So I proposed a ďcenter without wallsĒ that would be composed of people from a number of different institutions. I said that we needed to have a lead institution that needed to be a Southern California institution, and we needed to have a person who would be the director. Rob Wesson said thatís a great idea. We would involve the USGS, and that this would focus on Southern California, involve both USGS, universities and the State of California.
Doel:How has that worked in practice?
Sykes:Well, let me come to this in just a minute.
Sykes:He strongly agreed with me, and that we would approach [Keiti] K. Aki to be the director. We did that at that meeting, and he thought that this was a great idea. He pretty much carried the ball then of putting together a meeting for planning what this center would do, and then of coming up with what then became the official name, the Southern California Earthquake Center. A proposal then was sent to the NSF science and technology centers program, and it was funded as a center. And I think its eleventh and final year will be in something like 2002.
Doel:How effective do you feel it is as an entity?
Sykes:I think particularly Aki was a very insightful and broad person. One of the big issues right away was whether this would include largely the universities in the LA basin who would run it, about three universities, or whether it would be broader and it would be more of a national demonstration project. Needless to say, those of us from Lamont believed that it should be a broader effort and that we did have something to contribute. Aki then endorsed that it would include a broader representation. I think that there are seven universities that are the principles in this, of which Columbia is one. In fact, we are the only principal university outside of California. In fact there is only one that is outside of Southern California, U.C. Santa Cruz, that is one of the founding members and principals in this organization along with USGS and the State of California. Individuals from a few other universities that do have funding from SCEC, but more on an individual basis. So thatís something in which I feel pretty proud. Iím much less excited about Dave Jacksonís lack of leadership and foresight, and particularly about his co-authority in an article in Science that says earthquakes are not predictable. I think itís both wrong and dumb.
Doel:In terms of sustaining activities like the center and the work being done there.
Sykes:I think that he doesnít realize the position thatís heís in as center director. He cannot continue to be kind of the outsider who throws brick bats, which has been more his traditional role.
Doel:Thatís very interesting.
Sykes:And one other thing you might be interested in, that in fact that I made the proposal, the original proposal, for having an Alaskan Volcano Center.
Doel:That is interesting.
Sykes:At a meeting that John Davies chaired when he was State Seismologist for Alaska. John, in fact, was one of the members during my chairmanship of NEPEC, He was an active member of NEPEC. He organized a meeting on what should be done in Alaska having to do with both seismology and volcanoes. This was at a time in which money from the [Trans-Alaska] pipeline was flowing into the State treasury at a faster rate than it is now.
Sykes:There was some debate about it [my proposal]. Several people from USGS were just into regular what I would call quadrangle mapping, mapping things in more detail. I said we really need to concentrate on those volcanoes that are a hazard to more people in the Cook Inlet area. That idea ultimately got picked up and developed into the Alaska Volcano Observatory.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. So your role involved attending meetings that would occur? And were those held principally in the California area?
Sykes:Well, that one was just a meeting by invitation that John Davies organized to try to examine what should be done further in seismological and volcanological studies in Alaska.
Doel:Yes. Iím curious in a general way how your, what your role was within the Southern California Earthquake Center, how that collaboration that you from Lamont did, how it actually played out.
Sykes:Well, I think that the way that it played out was that probably three or four of the Southern California universities had in fact ended up getting most of the funds. Cal Tech is running the seismological network, UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] has a big role in OPS, and USC [University of Southern California] has a big role in a bunch of things including setting off explosions for crustal studies. In fact Lamont and other organizations from outside of Southern California ended up being pretty poor cousins in terms of the amount of money that we get. I think that we have had an effect, however, on the students we have had and the work that we have done that is way out of proportion, and much greater, than the percentage of the split of the money.
Doel:Thatís interesting. Would graduate students from the California universities actually come out here? Was that something that happened?
Sykes:No. For example I had one student who just finished up, Jishu Deng, who did his thesis on the state of stress and its evolution in Southern California. He was funded in his work by SCEC. It was agreed that those of us who had tenure positions would not take any salary money so we could have broader participation of people in SCEC who did not have tenure positions and graduate students. I think that that was a valid thing. I have one new student who will probably work on Southern California. SCEC does have postdoctoral fellowships. Deng received one for the next two years. He will be working at Cal Tech. I think so far we have not had a person at Lamont who was a SCEC fellow, but weíve had two Lamont students who have gone on to universities in Southern California as SCEC fellows.
Doel:One thing I didnít get to ask you earlier was, in 1975 you had met with the Chinese seismic delegate relating to earthquake research. What were your impressions of the work that was being done in China at that time?
Sykes:I think it was quite varied. We were there before many Americans visited China, in 1974 before formal recognition by the U.S. of the Peopleís Republic, but it was in the period in which it had been agreed that there would be a few exchanges each way, mainly in science, medicine and agriculture. There were delegations both ways in earthquake studies. I think we were amazed to find out how many people there were who were working on prediction in China. Those efforts had been started in 1966 after some very damaging earthquakes, about 300 kilometers to the southwest of Beijing. And Premier Jo Enli had taken a special interest in the fact that so many people had been killed there. This led to China setting up a huge program to predict earthquakes.
Doel:Interesting. Because thatís occurring at the same time as the Cultural Revolution.
Sykes:Thatís right. It was part and parcel of the Cultural Revolution. When we were there in Ď74, the Cultural Revolution was starting to die out in Beijing. When you got out into the provinces in Kunming it was still going pretty full blast. Everyone was still dressed in Mao jackets. When we would go to visit an institute, we would be welcomed by people representing three different groups that ran that organization — one person representing the scientists, another representing the Peopleís Liberation Army, and another representing quote ďthe workers.Ē The Institute of Geophysics was quite fortunate in Beijing, which was a leading center in seismology and still is, at having, I think a colonel from the army, who really wanted to be helpful and to facilitate the scientists doing good work on earthquake prediction. The Institute of Geology had people who actually got into physical fights at the Institute, were very divisive, and branded people, older people, who had been educated in the West as capitalist roaders. That institute had not done very much science, and that the military there had not been helpful.
Doel:Yes. Thatís very interesting. But you felt the Institute of Geophysics was fairly protected from that kind of political pressure.
Doel:Did you get a sense of what kind of journals were coming into the institute? Did they have access to Western —?
Sykes:A little bit, but during the Cultural Revolution they published almost nothing, the universities were closed. We visited Beijing University in Ď74, and there was very little going on there, either or science or teaching. There were a whole variety of things going on in earthquake monitoring in China in general, a lot of things that we were trying in the United States and the Japanese were trying — looking for changes in velocity, changes in magnetic field, electrical resistivity, of looking at patterns of earthquakes. Then there was the work on animal behavior that we heard about. Probably less than five percent of the Chinese effort was in that area, even though it was something that got a lot of play as a result of our reporting on it when we came back to the U.S.
Doel:Interesting. Had that been done, to your knowledge, in the United States or other western areas?
Sykes:No. There was one physicist working in Germany, who had grown up in an area of northeastern Italy that had had a large earthquake. He went back to see what had happened to members of his family, and started to hear stories about anomalous animal behavior. He wrote an article and then a book, which I think is one of the best descriptions of things that cannot just be shrugged off about animal behavior before earthquakes.
Doel:Thatís interesting. And who wrote this book?
Sykes:His name is Tribish [?], but I donít know how to spell it.
Doel:Sure. Thatís quite interesting.
Sykes:It was clear that there was a huge political component in China [to prediction]. Everyone would tell us that the scientists were supposed to learn from quote the ďbroad masses of the people,Ē end of quote. Children, as part of their classes, took samples of well water for radon measurements — which was a valid thing to do. Very often, however, they were from wells that were being used for other purposes, so that they werenít that valuable for strictly scientific purposes, as would be in having a deep well that would be only used and sampled for scientific purposes. Then there were things that people were doing that were just out to lunch, such as measuring the resistivity of tree roots.
Doel:Interesting. What kind of theory base was it that inspired that work?
Sykes:I think that it was just that they were going to try everything in an empirical fashion to see what changed before earthquakes.
Doel:Before an earthquake. Interesting. Interesting. I did want to ask you just two other brief questions before we finish today. You did become involved in the 1970s in the, when you testified in Ď76 about the Indian Point Nuclear Reactor, the question of whether this would be safe considering seismological factors in that area. How did you come to be involved in that testimony?
Sykes:Well, I came to be involved because I had obtained money to set up a number of these stations in New York State. We had a sequence of earthquakes near Attica that had been related to fluid injection, so I had gotten to know Jim Davis, the State Geologist. He hired Paul Pomeroy to be the state seismologist. At that point Indian Point II was under construction, and Paul Pomeroy and Jim Davis both became concerned about whether enough work had been done on the earthquake safety of Indian Point II. Indian Point I was an early, quite small reactor that has been shut down for a long time. It doesnít have an emergency core cooling facility. The only earthquake investigation that was done then was that Father Lynch from Fordham I think essentially did an afternoon of consulting —
Doel:That was it.
Sykes:— and said that this is nothing like the activity of places like Japan and Alaska and California, which was true. But then the design of Indian Point I was for essentially a very modest earthquake. So essentially then when Indian Point II was proposed, which was ten times as large and was a much bigger reactor that is still operating. Con Edison, the owners, merely Xeroxed the original safety statements in seismology and submitted them. New York State decided to contest not that the reactors were unsafe but that not enough work had been done according to the regulations of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] to make sure that they were safe. So they, through the State, brought suit. It first resulted in one geologist, Nicholas Ratcliff, who was quite familiar with the geology of that area, doing some detailed mapping, in which he identified a number of faults that cut the youngest rocks in the area, the Jurassic rocks 175 million years old or so. You couldnít tell whether these certain classes of faults had moved yesterday or if they had been dead for 175 million years. One of these ran right under reactor site three. By that time Indian Point II was nearing completion, the foundation was already being laid for Indian Point III. One of these faults went under, right through the foundation. So when the state brought this action, it was agreed that there would be this geological work done and also a seismic network would be set up around Indian Point for some detailed monitoring. When the geological results came in, New York State got more concerned. They brought a case before the appeals board of the U.S. NRC. They brought a formal legal proceeding to the appeals court in which the Indian Point case was divided into three parts — one was what essentially engineering, one had to do with whether the Ramapo Fault or any of its branches should be considered to be a capable fault according to the regulations at NRC, and the other was about what seismic zone or geological zone should Indian Point be assigned for purposes of earthquake design.
Sykes:I got involved in the last two issues. I was very concerned that many reactors were being licensed in which a lot of money was being spent through consulting groups, in the case of Indian Point, Dames and Moore, without there being appropriate rebuttal or considerations of other points of view. I felt it was necessary for some people like myself to step in and make sure that the public safety issue was properly addressed. In the end the engineering issue was won by New York State. The other two issues were mixed points of view by the review [appeal] board. The review board did not think that enough evidence had been presented to indicate that the Ramapo Fault should be considered a capable fault. Charles Richter was brought in to testify against me about what should be considered a capable fault, and he essentially said itís like very large earthquakes in California that break the surface. Clearly he had in mind magnitude six and a half or seven earthquakes, but Indian Point was nominally designed for something a little over a magnitude five. So —
Doel:Did that come out clearly in the testimony?
Sykes:No. Well, no, it didnít. And the lawyer for the environmental group who I worked with on the question of whether the Ramapo fault should be considered a capable fault, he essentially let Richter off the hook. Richter was an eighty-some-year-old man who was treated, understandably, with some deference, a lot of deference.
Doel:He carried the name of Richter after all to —
Sykes:Right. And thatís why he was brought in. It was clear that Richter was a person who had grown up believing that nuclear power, after having been used with the development of bombs in World War II, had a great future for peaceful uses.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. Do you think you were regarded in some sense as an activist by colleagues at Lamont, for your involvement in these different activities?
Sykes:I think it was something in which the people in the seismology group knew what I was doing. I probably was to some extent, but I think that other people at Lamont really didnít take much notice. They took more notice of test ban questions. It was probably more regarded as an activist there. We need to quit. I need to call the hospital and my doctor.
Sykes:So letís come back, and if you need to have me spell any things, but I need to make a phone call.
Doel:Understood. Thank you very much for this long session.