What to expect from chapter 6

Chapter 6:
Protecting lives using the results of earthquake modeling

Earthquakes can be highly destructive to lives and property. This chapter profiles an organization of scientists using cutting edge supercomputer technology to create detailed earthquake models and simulations. These models are used to predict earthquake behavior, work towards public risk reduction and improve emergency response activities during an earth­quake. Located in one of the most famous earthquake prone areas of the world (Los Angeles, California), the scientists perform rigorous physics based computations used in turn by other scientists, government agen­cies, insurance companies, and many other people. The scientific team displays their data using colorful 2 – 4 dimensional maps and graphs, eas­ily interpreted by a reasonably well educated non-earth science audience. In addition, they are involved in extensive public outreach and education activities including school children as a primary target.

Earthquake prediction is never going to be a “solved problem”. We will never be able to state with 100% assurance when an earthquake will occur, where it will occur and how strong it will be. However, scientific computing and increased leverage of grid technologies are increasing the reliability of what can be predicted: how an earthquake will behave in a certain geo­graphic area, when aftershocks are likely to occur, and where the chances of an earthquake along a given fault are higher. This information is critical for preparing populations around the world: from heavily populated areas such as southern California and into rural areas such as Indonesia.

Scientific computing demands a vast array of computer science skills. Many of these are detailed in the chapter, but a few of the most important include a solid understanding of high performance computing, parallel networks, vast multi-core systems, and scientifically oriented program­ming languages such as Fortran. It probably does not need to be said, but a solid mathematics and physics background is prerequisite.

Aside from the myriad technical skills, you need a strong ability to deal with complexity and multiple, sometimes contradictory, variables. Choices have to be made about what data to include or exclude in a model or simulation, so you must be comfortable working in an environment where tough technical decisions are a regular feature of your job. Towards this end, an understanding of the domain (earth science) is extremely help­ful. Thus coursework in earth science and geology is recommended. If you have an interest in working with the public, you need technical writing coursework, public speaking experience and practice translating highly technical information into different forms effective for different audiences.

If you are a computer scientist who, among other things, finds geolog­ical processes fascinating and want to help prevent and alleviate natural disasters, scientific computing in the earth sciences is a great way to go. You may need to obtain an advanced degree (MS or PhD) to really get into the guts of the technical work, but the opportunity to create an interdisci­plinary post graduate degree is available and waiting for you.