Prof Kerry Sieh peers thousands of years into the past to predict future quakes. His discoveries along the faults of California and Sumatra have led to long-term forecast of large earthquakes. The prominent geologist is the founding Director of NTU's Earth Observatory of Singapore, which aims to conduct basic and applied research related to earthquake, tsunami, volcanic, and climate hazards. He is leading a team of earth scientists including renowned neotectonicist Prof Paul Tapponnier and expert volcanologist Prof Chris Newhall to help understand and address natural hazard challenges facing Southeast Asia in the 21st century.
A member of the US National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honours that can be accorded a US scientist or engineer, Prof Sieh initiated the field of paleoseismology three decades ago. The field involves using geological layers and landforms to understand the geometries of active faults, the earthquakes they generate and the crustal structure their movements produce. Prof Sieh's work led to the discovery of how often the San Andreas fault has generated earthquakes in southern California.
In Asia, his work along the great undersea fault line, the Sunda megathrust, has revealed patterns of ancient rupture and current straining that led to forecasts of recent and impending large Sumatran earthquakes and tsunamis.
Prof Sieh, who has spent the past six years studying Indonesian earthquakes, successfully predicted Sumatra's 8.7-magnitude earthquake off the island of Nias in 2005. That research also suggested that the megathrust is poised to produce yet another giant earthquake in western Sumatra within the next 30 years.
Before becoming Director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore, Prof Sieh was a tenured geology professor with an endowed chair at the California Institute of Technology's Tectonics Observatory, a US$30 million privately funded scientific effort, which he and others created at the university. He uprooted and joined NTU when the Singapore government made him an offer he could not refuse – to build a research centre of excellence for the study of earthquake sciences with S$150 million funding.
"Nowhere between Taiwan and Australia is there a well-funded earth science department," he says. "When I see the students here, I think what a rich store of potential we have if we can inspire them, and if they can learn about all the exciting things happening in the region. We want to create an intellectual environment where the best minds can make brilliant discoveries. With good teachers, staff and technical support, I think we can tap into a latent yearning among students to do something significant for Singapore and the region as a whole."
Prof Sieh and his students at NTU have completed a study of the active faults of Taiwan recently, and have begun a comprehensive study of earthquake geology in Myanmar.
In a recent article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof Sieh was quoted as saying that the decision to come to Singapore was the right one.
"I'm having the time of my life. It's wonderful to be in a place that appreciates you."