From the Director: Reflecting on 2020 (and early 2021)

Dear SCEC Community,

The passing year will not go down in history as a good one. But as I reflect on 2020 and the near future, I find many bright spots and reasons for optimism. The quest to understand the phenomena of earthquakes gives us work that continues to excite and challenge us, and keeps us engaged in fundamental problems. Through the SCEC collaboration we not only find many ways to collaborate, but also connect with each other on multiple fronts, and the results of our work can impact people and society in positive ways. SCEC emerges at the end of 2020 stronger, despite the lingering COVID-19 pandemic that has affected everyone, and the prospects for 2021 are promising. 

SEAS Workshop Participants TodayWe attended many virtual meetings this year. The distributed nature of the SCEC collaboration allowed us to transition fully to the online mode very effectively. The virtual SCEC annual meeting and workshops were highly successful, thanks to the community involvement at many levels and the innovative infrastructure that was developed to preserve the lively interactions that are hallmarks of SCEC meetings. We learned in the process that virtual meetings have some advantages over in-person meetings, including legacy recorded talks, excellent platforms for comments to presenters, reach to a wider audience of early career and international researchers, and reduced impact on the environment. We can benefit from these features in future engagements.

SCEC is an open consortium for earthquake research and education, available to all qualified individuals and institutions, that aims to be global in impact while using Southern California as a focused natural laboratory. Participation of national and international institutions in SCEC has continued to increase in 2020. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory just became SCEC’s newest Core Institution. Core Institutions make a major, sustained commitment to SCEC objectives, whereas Participating Institutions are self-nominated through the involvement of individual scientists or groups in SCEC activities and confirmed by the Board of Directors. We welcome additional Core and Participating Institutions. We ask that new applications for SCEC institution status include a description of the institution’s commitment to improving diversity in STEM and in particular in geosciences.

During 2020, the management structure and institutions associated with the Center evolved to improve our ability to operate efficiently, to navigate through challenges, and to seize opportunities. In April this year, the Board adopted a revised set of SCEC By-laws that makes the SCEC organizational structure more resilient. The growth of a diverse scientific community remains a high priority for the SCEC leadership, and the Board of Directors has now established two standing committees (a committee for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and a committee on Professional Conduct) to accelerate efforts that will  improve SCEC culture and community.

Ridgecrest surface rupture and trench with inset map of study sitesThe 2019 Ridgecrest earthquake sequence provided a reminder that M > 7 earthquakes occur in Southern California on a decadal timescale, and reinforced the important roles played by the Eastern California Shear Zone and Walker Lane in the complex evolving plate boundary in the region. The rich and diverse data sets generated by the Ridgecrest sequence continued to drive research in 2020, and led to many innovative papers that make important contributions to earthquake science. Examples include derivations of high-resolution seismicity catalogs, earthquake source properties and velocity models, demonstrations of the volumetric nature of large earthquake processes when viewed up and close with detailed geodetic and seismic observations, and quantitative testing of post-mainshock seismicity forecasts. Paleoseismic studies are currently underway to determine the timing and recurrent behavior of the faults that caused the Ridgecrest earthquakes (see In the trenches—Paleoseismic studies of the 2019 Ridgecrest ruptures).

The Collaboratory for the Study of Earthquake Predictability (CSEP)—an international effort to provide the cyberinfrastructure for conducting prospective and retrospective forecasting experiments in natural laboratories around the world—released a new software toolkit that helps forecasting experts to evaluate their models (see article here). Additional research highlights in 2020 include advances to multiple SCEC community models, including notably the debut of the first community rheology model, broader use of machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques in earthquake science, high-resolution results on nonlinear evolving properties of subsurface materials, improved understanding of the evolving stress field, validation of fault displacement from dynamic rupture simulations, adding effects of topography and nonlinear response of shallow materials to ground motion simulations, and progress toward goals of technical activity groups. This is an impressive list of accomplishments given that nearly half of 2020 SCEC-funded projects reported some delays due to COVID-19 and related circumstances. We are on track to achieving the majority of research targets set forth in the SCEC5 proposal.

Anticipating potential reduced involvement due to the pandemic, SCEC’s Communication, Education and Outreach program developed new ways for people to participate and learn. More than 100,000 people joined the “Great Online ShakeOut” via Facebook Live on ShakeOut day, which was broadcasted in each timezone with regional messaging and included a countdown to 10:15 am for the online drill. The new Safer At Home Webinar Series covered each of the Seven Steps to Earthquake Safety, with emphasis on preparing for earthquakes and tsunamis during the pandemic. Spanish-language resources and guidance at were expanded and updated; a new “Rocket’s Earthquake Safety Activity Book” complemented other materials for young children; and several resources were adapted for people with disabilities.

2020 SOURCES Internship ParticipantsWhile many student internships and field classes were canceled in 2020, we saw firsthand how creativity of many in the community opened up alternative opportunities for our young researchers. SCEC’s Experiential Learning and Career Advancement program established remotely-mentored internships called Supported Opportunities for Undergraduates and Researchers to Collaborate on Earthquake Science (SOURCES). Nine undergraduates from across the nation worked with SCEC researchers throughout the summer and into the fall semester. Many of you have adapted your research projects and courses to ensure students continue to develop professional skills that prepare them for potential STEM careers. One example is shown in Remote teaching collaboration on mapping active faults for probabilistic fault displacement hazard.

We are currently working with sponsors and partners on a budget plan for next year. The funding SCEC received in 2020 from NSF, USGS, PG&E, DOE, NASA, CEA, FEMA, Cal OES and other partners was slightly above the 2019 level. In 2020 we were also awarded substantial allocations in top high-performance computing systems including DOE INCITE, TACC Stampede-2 and SDSC Comet (XSEDE XRAC), TACC Frontera, and USC HPC. We thank all our funding sponsors, HPC centers, and USC (hosting SCEC headquarter) for their support and flexibility that has allowed the Center to continue to operate well through the pandemic. We are in the process of developing new projects and initiatives that we hope will increase resources in 2021 to allow growth of our research and CEO efforts.

The SCEC leadership has initiated planning for the next phase of the Center. During 2020, we reviewed the community’s ideas for the next Center and started conversations with various groups within SCEC. An organizational structure committee and a science questions committee were formed to begin turning these ideas and conversations into possible directions for the future Center. We plan to continue these activities in 2021 and look forward to engaging more of the SCEC community in the process. Motivated by the success of our 2020 online meetings and excellent infrastructure now in place, we are planning an online SCEC seminar series for the coming year. Stay tuned for more information on this and other events in early 2021, which will be posted at the revamped SCEC meetings and events page.

The end of the year is a time for celebrations, and nothing is more worthwhile to celebrate than the achievements of those that excel in their fields; serve and enrich our community in various ways. Warm congratulations to Rachel Abercrombie (Boston University), Nadia Lapusta (Caltech) and Pablo Ampuero (Université Côte d'Azur) for becoming AGU fellows this year, to Andrea Donnellan (NASA/JPL) and David Sandwell (UCSD) for becoming AAAS fellows, to Ramon Arrowsmith (ASU) who received the Silver Award from AGU for outstanding scientific service, and to Ilia Zaliapin (UNR) for getting a Fulbright Fellowship. We hope to announce many additional achievements of members of the SCEC collaboration in future newsletters.

Illustration of Saturn and Jupiter approaching each other for the 2020 Great ConjunctionToday is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, where the amount of light will increase daily until the summer solstice. Today is also the “great conjunction of 2020” when Jupiter and Saturn appear so close in the sky that they seem as one bright object referred to as the “Christmas star”, which last happened hundreds of years ago. In southern California, Jupiter and Saturn can be viewed together soon after sunset in the low western sky, along with Mars right above and a waxing moon. (If the skies are not clear in your area, Lowell Observatory is streaming the event live.) We spent the year studying processes below the surface and now we can look up and get inspiration from the heavens. 

Happy holidays and best wishes for 2021,

Yehuda Ben-Zion, SCEC Director


In this Newsletter

Science Highlights

Education Highlights

Future Articles

We welcome suggestions for articles from the SCEC community about your research, education, and related activities. This may also include your or other's recognitions, awards, and honors that we can highlight. Please email suggestions to