Earthquake center interns leave the lab behind to get their hands on real faults
Interns at the Southern California Earthquake Center do research for two months — logging many hours in a lab looking at data and simulations — but also participating in field trips and site visits. Photos by Gus Ruelas.

Earthquake center interns leave the lab behind to get their hands on real faults

Student interns are spending the summer doing important research at USC Dornsife’s Southern California Earthquake Center, considered an international leader in earthquake forecasting.
ByJoanna Clay

One of the most famous intersections in the world, Los Angeles’ Hollywood and Vine attracts many visitors who stop to marvel at the iconic Capitol Records Building. But earthquake scientists are drawn to the location to geek out on something else: the Hollywood fault.

Standing over the Hollywood star of a 1950s yodeler, USC Dornisfe geologist James Dolan pointed out a fault cliff — a result of past rumblings — to interns from the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), which is headquartered at USC Dornsife.

It amazed 21-year-old Rafael Cervantes. He grew up in L.A. and had always heard about big faults — like the San Andreas — but never thought about the smaller ones that run through the region’s urban areas.

“That was pretty scary because it’s really highly populated and because of the amount of damage it could do,” said Cervantes, a SCEC intern who will be starting at the University of California, San Diego in the fall.

The eight-week summer intern program gives 22 students from across the United States the chance to do top-tier research with SCEC, considered an international leader in earthquake forecasting. It’s competitive: This year’s program had more than 250 applicants. The interns are paid a stipend of $5,000 for their work and given free housing at USC.

Sharing their work

During much of the program, the interns are divided into teams, spending their days in a laboratory making videos, testing earthquake scenarios or analyzing possible damage. It’s all to address a “grand challenge,” a real issue facing earthquake scientists. The interns’ work — whether it’s data crunched by a supercomputer or video simulation software — is presented to earthquake scientists at SCEC’s annual conference as research for the community to build on and use.

But for a couple of days last week, they got to ditch the computer screens for the real world. And what better place to do that than California.

Landscape Right

Southern California is an ideal location for earthquake scientists to observe tectonic history.

“We call California a natural laboratory because we have so many faults here,” said Jozi Pearson, SCEC’s intern supervisor.

The interns started out at L.A.’s celebrated Griffith Observatory. As tourists zipped by, eager to grab pictures of the Hollywood sign and the spectacular views of the L.A. Basin, SCEC interns tried to spot the Puente Hills blind thrust fault through some early morning haze.

Dolan, professor of earth sciences, likes to use the vantage point as a place to point out all the different regions — like fault areas or mountain ranges — that the students have previously only known from maps.

“On a clear day you can see where the bottom of the fault is, in Pasadena, and the top at USC,” Dolan said.

A few hours later, after a lunch break, the SCEC interns touched a fault. Yes, touched it.

Just outside the headquarters of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, students huddled near a creek. Dolan got out a shovel and pushed some soil aside and there it was: the Sierra Madre fault.

“It just looks like a crack with white rock on one side and brown rock on another,” he said.

Beyond L.A.’s urban geology, the students also got a glimpse of the mighty San Andreas, perhaps one of the most infamous faults in the country. To do that, they traveled by bus to Palmdale, 62 miles north of L.A. There they toured a portion of the 700-mile fault, part of which is visible from the highway.

“Faults tend to be a dot on a map but they’re not. … They can be exceedingly large,” Dolan said.

‘Drop, cover and hold on’

While Californians grow up knowing to “drop, cover and hold on,” a third of the interns are from out of state. Many have never experienced a quake.

Amelia Midgley, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, read up on California’s tectonic history before she came. That made the reality of being in earthquake country a little nerve-wracking.

“To be honest, as a geologist from Massachusetts, I did come here a little worried,” she said. “There was a 3.3 earthquake yesterday just north of San Francisco.”

But even though she has never felt an earthquake, she is enamored by the science — especially the possibilities that forecasting brings.

“The more we learn about them, the more we can understand their complex processes,” she said. “I think the best thing is preventing or mitigating as much damage as we can because earthquakes cause a lot of damage, as we’ve seen before in the 1906 [San Francisco] or 1857 [Fort Tejon] earthquakes on the San Andreas fault.”

Dolan, a visiting instructor for the L.A. excursion, said he doesn’t mind playing earthquake tour guide.

“I like doing these field trips in the hopes that some of these interns will prove to be the next generation of really great earthquake scientists,” he said. “They’re not typically going out in the field and seeing these things. … There’s no substitute for someone saying ‘Right over there is the east end of the 1971 earthquake rupture and that mountain to the west is the west end — and that distance is what a 6.7 earthquake rupture is.’”