Nanyang Technological University


Making the world a safer place

 

The Earth Observatory of Singapore logo represents both the dynamism of our planet and our scientific observations of the changing Earth. Represented in the design are the four basic elements delineated by Plato: fire (red for volcanic magma), wind (with gray evoking the atmosphere), water (represented by a blue sea), and earth (brown for terra firma).

Meet Professors Kerry Sieh and Paul Tapponnier, who hail from top international universities but now call NTU home.

Prof Sieh, previously a chaired professor at the California Institute of Technology’s Tectonics Observatory, initiated the field of paleoseismology, the study of geologic sediments and rocks for signs of ancient earthquakes, 30 years 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. His work led to the discovery of how often the San Andreas fault has generated earthquakes in southern California.

Prof Tapponnier, head of Tectonics Group, is the most influential and accomplished neotectonicist of his generation. He built the world-renowned Laboratoire Tectonique at the University of Paris and trained a generation of younger scientists, while continuing to keep his group at the forefront of neotectonic discovery in Asia and other areas such as the Middle-East.

The two men sit at the apex of the Earth Observatory of Singapore. It is not an easy position to be in – the lives of thousands, perhaps even millions, in Southeast Asia depend on the research outcomes of their work.

Set up as NTU's first Research Centre of Excellence in February 2009 with S$150 million funding from Singapore's National Research Foundation and Ministry of Education, EOS aims to be a pre-eminent world institute for understanding and addressing several of civilisation’s most serious environmental threats caused by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and climate change.

Currently, the Observatory is conducting research to refine tsunami forecasts for western Sumatra and the South China Sea, and to evaluate the likely impact of future Sumatran earthquakes on Singapore and the region. Its other efforts include creating a comprehensive database of earthquake faults in Southeast Asia, and evaluating volcanic potential in the region.

“The first few years of the 21st century have provided ample evidence of our vulnerability and our exposure,” said Prof Sieh, who was headhunted to set up the Observatory at NTU.

“The devastation of the Acehnese and Thai coastlines in 2004, Kashmir and New Orleans in 2005, southwest Java in 2006, Sumatra again in 2007, western Sichuan and Myanmar in 2008 and, in the early days of 2010, Haiti; all this represents a nearly incessant litany of death, loss and suffering.

“In some of these cases, we knew well that we were living on dangerous ground. In other cases we did not,” said the internationally renowned geologist. “Similarly, there are places in Southeast Asia sitting in the jaws of a dragon, which have no scientific awareness of the tenuousness of their existence. Such was the case of the hundreds of thousands who perished in Aceh and Kashmir.

“Such tragic examples of basic ignorance and the inability to translate knowledge into action illustrate well the challenge of acquiring basic scientific knowledge of natural phenomena and then using it effectively and in a timely fashion,” said Prof Sieh. 

He added that the Observatory is well-positioned to face this challenge. "We intend to help blaze new paths through the fascinating mysteries of this dangerous, dynamic processes shaping and renewing the thin shell of our planet that we call home.

“We also aim to be modern scientific high priests, illuminating these marvellous phenomena and their attendant perils to our fellow sojourners, who include community leaders, engineers and planners – all altruists working to make the world a safer and more enjoyable place,” said Prof Sieh.

The Observatory is set to train about 80 graduate students and 65 post-doctoral fellows by 2019. It took in its first batch of PhD candidates in earth sciences in 2010. Its researchers also teach in NTU’s new Division of Earth Sciences, housed in the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. These efforts have received a S$5 million boost through a research endowment from insurance company AXA establishing the first AXA Chair in Asia at NTU.  

“The Observatory will make huge strides in earth science research, which will be pivotal in creating safe and sustainable communities throughout Southeast Asia and beyond.”

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