2016 Kirk Bryan Award
“Turbidite event history—Methods and implications for Holocene paleoseismicity of the Cascadia subduction zone: USGS Professional Paper 1661-F”
Citation by Alan Nelson And Scott Burns
Goldfinger et al. (2012) is a well-written, exceptionally detailed, summary of a study of unusually broad areal and interdisciplinary scope, even for the highly interdisciplinary field of Quaternary geology. The paper is the culmination of a 13-year project by Chris Goldfinger, Hans Nelson, Ann Morey and ten other scientists (and about 30 students). Funded primarily by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey, the resources devoted to obtaining and studying the more than 160 marine cores that provide the data for the study are unlikely to be available in the foreseeable future.
From the perspective of the Quaternary specialty of paleoseismology, Goldfinger et al. (2012) is one of the most important papers to appear since the development of this research specialty in the early 1970s. The paper is one of a handful describing enough evidence for large earthquakes over a span of time sufficient to model the recurrence of large earthquakes and how earthquakes may cluster in time due to changing patterns of stress accumulation and release on long faults. The paper is also unusual, even for a long monograph, in its careful explanation and extensive discussion of the methods used, data recovered, and alternative interpretations of the data, including statistical tests aimed at distinguishing among alternatives. Another major strength is the degree to which almost all data have been formatted in extensive data appendices.
The research summarized by Goldfinger et al. (2012) has played a key role in (1) the development of marine paleoseismology, (2) the increasing influence of Quaternary stratigraphy and (submarine) geomorphology in earthquake and tsunami hazard assessment and subsequent hazard mitigation, (3) the greater and more frequent media attention to hazard and other applied Quaternary studies, and (4) the resulting greater public appreciation of the value of Quaternary geology to society. Despite the explosion in the twenty-first century of convincing Quaternary stratigraphic data dated with dramatically increased precision, few papers of the past 15 years rival Goldfinger et al. (2012) in their scope, influence on the assessment of natural hazards, and importance in demonstrating the societal value of Quaternary studies.
It’s a bit ironic to be given this award, considering what a failure the project was. In 1990, John Adams published his hypothesis of great earthquakes in Cascadia based on turbidite evidence. The evidence was collected by Oregon State University students Gary Griggs, John Duncan, Hans Nelson, Bobb Carson, Bill Barnard and others and developed into dissertations under Vern Kulm and Dean McManus in the late 1960s. My reaction, and also that of Hans Nelson, was that deriving paleoseismic records from turbidites was preposterous, there being so many things that could generate them; how could earthquakes ever be isolated from the sedimentary mess? Nelson, who had worked extensively on the Astoria Fan, thought there were only three Holocene turbidites on the Fan, not the 13 claimed by Adams. So we wrote a proposal to go test, and presumably disprove, this hypothesis. It took several attempts to get the proposal funded given that marine paleoseismology barely existed in the mid-1990s. In fact the Earth Science Division, not the Ocean Science Division of NSF supported it. Well, about midway through the 30-day cruise, we had a meeting in which we were to make a presentation to the ship’s crew of our work. We pulled out a collection of the cores so far, laid them out in the main lab, and started discussing what we would say. Then it became apparent that in fact many of the cores had the same number of post Mazama ash turbidites, 13, as Adams had reported at numerous locations in Cascadia as a key test of synchronous deposition. So, we changed our story and showed the crew how marine paleoseismology worked in Cascadia. One of the engineers told us they listened to many such presentations, nodding politely but having no idea what the scientists were talking about. But for this one, he got it: “I can count to 13!” was his comment. So we failed in rather spectacular fashion, and have been doing marine paleoseismology ever since because it apparently works. We were also lucky to be able to use and build on the excellent work of the University of Washington and OSU students decades before, without which our work would have been impossible. Many of us learned an important lesson rather graphically, that the data may well swerve us into a completely different path than expected, and so it’s best not to hold onto pet ideas too tightly. We were also made to realize that sometimes it’s best to just try ideas, even if our rational side tries to shoot them down. Our rational powers try to shoot everything down—that’s how science works—but it’s all too easy to kill good ideas in the process. Kirk Bryan passed long before my time, but he was known for teaching his students to think through problems themselves, rather than “teaching” them how things should be done. This takes a lot of patience, confidence in the process, and willingness to let it take us to new territory, but is something all educators can aspire to. We hope to get there, but meanwhile we appreciate the confidence in and appreciation of our work expressed by GSA and our colleagues Alan Nelson and Scott Burns, and will try to live up to that hope.
We thank the GSA Kirk Bryan Award Committee for selecting us as awardees. We also thank Alan Nelson (not a relative!) and Scott Burns for their independent efforts to submit outstanding nominations. In addition, Alan reviewed my first draft of our Professional Paper, which provided excellent guidance to produce a much-improved paper. We also need to acknowledge our students, ship officials, and technicians for their long hours working at sea and in the laboratory. Last but not least, I greatly appreciate my parents for inspiring my curiosity and my marine geologist wife, Carlota Escutia, and my daughters Cristina, Carli, Lisa and Laurie for their understanding and supporting my long hours in the office and absences at sea
The Kirk Bryan Award is particularly special for me because my M.S. thesis advisor, Herb Wright, and first U.S. Geological Survey mentor, Dave Hopkins, were Kirk Bryan students. Both of these men exhibited Kirk Bryan’s mentoring abilities, especially by their informal gatherings with visiting scientists, which I found to be the best learning experiences of my student and early working career. My wife and I carry on these Bryan-type informal meetings with visiting scientists and our graduate students.
For me personally, this award is the event of a lifetime after nearly 60 years of research. Without the early decades of research in Cascadia Basin with many Oregon State University colleagues, our paleoseismic turbidite methods could not have been developed. And then along came Chris Goldfinger with a poster next to mine at an American Geophysical Union meeting, which became a major turning point for my paleoseismic research. Our research interests were complimentary, but in the end he became a premier turbidite sedimentologist and helped take our research to originally unimagined results. Not only have we defined long paleoseismic histories, but we now see how earthquakes control entire active tectonic basin stratigraphy, sedimentary facies patterns and lithologic sequences.