Friday, March 8, 2024

Remembering Thomas C. Hanks

I heard that Thomas C. Hanks passed away recently. He was a mentor to me. He worked for his career with the US Geological Survey. The memorials of him from his colleagues will be many and deep. I wanted to capture some of my memories of him. Tom was very supportive of young scientists and very broad in his scientific thinking. While he was most well known as a seismologist, his work in geomorphology and fault scarps and fragile geologic features was transformative.

This was a sticky on a manuscript draft he once gave me after a discussion on uncertainties in morphologic datting. Look at the nice handwriting (usually from a well sharpened #2 pencil). And the signature THanks.

Tom was on my Ph.D. supervisory committee. I was at Stanford and Tom was in Menlo Park at the USGS. Like many of his colleagues there, he was very generous with his time with the Stanford students. We talked a lot about fault scarps and diffusion, but also about the San Andreas Fault and I was able to drive for him on a few field trips to the SAF in the southern Bay Area into the Creeping Section. With Professor Gordon Brown's support (chair of our department at the time), Tom helped to lead an active tectonics seminar one quarter.

Tom's work on the age of scarplike landforms from diffusion-equation analysis (title of one of his latter papers on the subject) was very influential. He teamed up with Robert Wallace and others to take something simple about how fault scarps apparently change shape over time and quantify it in a realistic way. There are numerous important papers on the topic with Tom as an author but two seminal ones are:
Hanks, T. C., Bucknam, R. C., Lajoie, K. R., & Wallace, R. E. (1984). Modification of wave-cut and faulting-controlled landforms. Journal of Geophysical Research.
Hanks, T. C. (2000). The Age of Scarplike Landforms From Diffusion-Equation Analysis. in Quaternary Geochronology: Methods and Applications. In AGU Reference Shelf 4 (Vol. 4).

Among many other contributions on the age of scarplike landforms, Tom introduced a simple morphological dating approach: reduced slope-offset. He argued for a measure of the scarp midpoint slope (reduced by the far field slope) versus the vertical offset and he developed a nice calibration along with his colleagues for the rate constant k. He favored analytical solutions (tolerating my numerical approach).
One small anecdote that I always appreciated on the geomorphology side was his desire to name a unit for GK Gilbert (1m2/kyr = 1GKG). See the seminal 1984 Hanks et al JGR paper. It did not catch on but was a fun idea.

In 2007, David Haddad and I went with Tom to Northern Arizona University to see the collection of his father's photographs that he had endowed: Repeat Photography Site for The James J. Hanks Photographs, 1927-1928. Tom, like always, was deeply engaged/obsessed with the topic at hand. He worked hard to relocate and repeat his father's photographs, as well as to tell their story.

Whilst on the trip to Flagstaff, Tom, David, and I stopped to see and discuss the Granite Dells (near Prescott, AZ). Tom had been leading parts of the seismic hazard analysis for the Yucca Mountain possible nuclear repository. The problem they were coming up with was the age of the landscape was great (million year old landforms) and there were fragile geologic features and precarious rocks that may have been there fragile for a large fraction of that time. However, the extrapolation of the ground motion predictions would be to extreme, possibly unrealistic levels. Tom was interested in these million-year-old landscapes of fragile geologic features and recognized their value as an observational constraint for seismic hazard analysis. This is an impressive product of their work:
Hanks, T. C., Abrahamson, N. A., Baker, J. W., Boore, D. M., Board, M., Brune, J. N., Cornell, C. A., & Whitney, J. W. (2012). Extreme Ground Motions And Yucca Mountain. Extreme Ground Motions and Yucca Mountain Open-File Report 2013–1245, US Geological Survey.

Tom was interested in precariously balanced rocks given their use as a part of seismic hazard analysis. He thought it might be helpful for new people to get involved. So, he pulled David and I into it. He was supportive and helped generate some funds for us. That lead to a couple of nice papers lead by David. I regret that we did not have Tom as a coauthor:
Haddad, D. E., Akciz, S. O., Arrowsmith, J. R., Rhodes, D. D., Oldow, J. S., Zielke, O., Toke, N. A., Haddad, A. G., Mauer, J., & Shilpakar, P. (2012). Applications of airborne and terrestrial laser scanning to paleoseismology. Geosphere, 8(4).
Haddad, D. E., Zielke, O., Arrowsmith, J. R., Purvance, M. D., Haddad, A. G., & Landgraf, A. (2012). Estimating two-dimensional static stabilities and geomorphic settings of precariously balanced rocks from unconstrained digital photographs. Geosphere, 8(5).

A final lesson from Tom is that senior scientists should be generous and use their privilege to do good with a minimum of self promotion. Tom was a widely appreciated mentor of younger scientists--men and women. He was also a leader who did not shy away from trying to do the right thing. Just one example relates to another senior scientist who recently passed away: Paul Tapponier. Professor Tapponier led a transformation of our understanding of continental tectonics. He favored results with relatively high slip rates and thus the inference that the deformation even in plate interiors was more plate-like. Tom supported his colleague Wayne Thatcher who had come up with a result based on geodesy for the deformation of the Asian continental interior (Thatcher W. 2007. Microplate model for the present-day deformation of Tibet. J. Geophys. Res. 112:B01401) (and that did not sit well with Paul). Zack Washburn and I had written a paper based on paleoseismology that was wishy washy and did not definitely support high or low slip rates along the Altyn Tagh (although we felt like we could not support enough earthquakes to support a high slip rate but did not want to over interpret). Tom stepped in to mediate between Wayne and Paul and consulted me as part of his preparations. Tom had the stature, the intelligence, maturity and deserved respect so that he was able to set the tone for what I gather was a productive meeting.

I ended up with a copy of Tom's USGS bio and I note the following which is a nice example of his writing and matter-of-fact approach:

Friday, December 15, 2023

Open Science recognition prize at AGU 2023

Our OpenTopography project was honored at this year's AGU with the Open Science Recognition prize: "For outstanding contributions in cyberinfrastructure, data management, training, and outreach associated with open-access high-resolution topography." It is a great honor and nice reognition for more than 15 years of work by our team. Huge thanks to Roman DiBiase for leading the nomination and for the letter writers Mike Oskin, Paola Passalacqua, and Josh Roering.

Chelsea Scott and Chris Crosby made a nice presentation summarizing our efforts. The recording is here: link.

It was also nice to meet the other winner, Tasha Snow and appreciate her efforts. In particular, I really appreciated her articulation of Open Science values (image from her presentation):

The full award ceremony is recorded here: link.

Here are a couple of pictures of our team:

Other links:
OpenTopography news release: link

And we celebrated with the other ASU / SESE awardees (Vernon Morris and Everett Shock):

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Determining the cell size of a Digital Elevation Model from point density

We regulary refer to high resolution topography (HRT) as having Digital Elevation Model (DEM) pixel sizes with their edges less than 1 m. Many raster DEMs derived from airborne laser swath mapping available for example from OpenTopography are delivered at 1m/pix. In many cases, the point density might be high enough to support even higher resolution or smaller pixels. This seems like a fairly simple question: what is the recommended cell size of a DEM for a given point density?

The Langridge, et al., 2013 paper cites Hu, 2003 and suggests the following:

where S is the estimated cell size (typically in m), n is the number of sample points and A is the area containing the sample points.

Here is a little spreadsheet to solve this equation given A and n: link.

In the trivial case, that equation can be rearranged and show that 1 point per sq. m is consistent with a 1 m DEM. That seems ok in the sense that then on average there is one point for each pixel which would be the logic of this equation. It assumes then that the points are well distributed and that whatever average for point density that we might use to estimate a cell size represents the data well. A complication is the method of DEM computation: local function or linear interpolation. An example of the local implementation is the Points2Grid tool (see prototype here and here). Tinning or the use of triangular irregular networks linearly interpolates between (selected) points to estimate DEM pixel elevations (see blast2dem for example).

Here are some illustrations from the Jemez River Basin dataset cited below. These data have a stated point density of 9.68 points/sq. m and were computed within the OpenTopography portal using the TIN approach.
Here is an example from a site called Sulphur Creek (1 m/pix for this Digital Surface Model, DSM):

Here is a zoom to that site with the 1m/pix DSM hillshade and 14% of the points displayed from ArcMap. We can see the 1 m pixels and that there are a decent number (about 9.7) of points for each one. This has all of the points (all classes):
Here is the same view but with a 0.32 m/pix (recommended resolution from equation above), but applied to the Digital Terrain Model (DTM). Note this is not really correct resolution estimate because the number of points classified as ground is only about 1/5 of the total. And, this shows the ground returns only.
Zooming in even more, we can see the big triangular facets where the TINNING algorithm spanned the data gaps in the ground classified points for this 0.32 m/pix DTM:
Finally, zooming back out with the 1 m/pix DTM displayed, we can see that at this scale, the DTM landscape is well represented in general. We do need the interpolation by tinning across the gaps in the ground points:

References Hu, Y., 2003. Automated Extraction of Digital Terrain Models, Roads and Buildings Using Airborne LiDAR Data (PhD thesis). Department of Geomatics Engineering, The University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Jemez River Basin Snow-off LiDAR Survey. Distributed by OpenTopography. . Accessed: 2023-05-14

Langridge, R.M., et al., Developing sub 5-m LiDAR DEMs for forested sections of the Alpine and Hope faults, South Island, New Zealand: Implications for structural interpretations, Journal of Structural Geology (2013),

Thursday, June 30, 2022

A simple evolutionary model for fragile geologic features

The fragility of geologic features, such as precariously balanced rocks (PBRs), can be measured by a simple parameter like α. For the case of a PBR is the smallest of the angles between the vertical from the center of mass and its rocking points. In a landscape, each object will have a fragility and so the ensemble will be a fragility distribution. The controls on the initial distribution and its long term evolution will be from the environment and its history (material properties, landscape evolution (lowering), weathering, shaking, etc.). The distribution can be disturbed by an earthquake (or other loading like windstorm, human impacts, etc.) which abruptly removes features with fragility below a threshold α.

Example of PBRs in Granite Dells, Arizona

I started to think an analogy with a fruit tree. I am not sure this is an original idea maybe I heard it somewhere. The progressive ripening of the fruit can be interrupted by a shake which will remove completely a subset of the most ripe fruit. For the case of the rocks, the ripening is a gradual decrease in fragility over time and then a fragility reset of a subset rather than removal after they are toppled in a shaking event. Ripening continues and the processes repeat over time. This simple model does not account for changing ripening rates or much variation in shaking effects other than threshold α. The basic idea then for seismic hazard is that the fragility distribution at a location reflects the history of the long term ripening and episodic shaking and reset. Therefore, if we can produce fragility distributions for landscapes that otherwise comparible (ripening and threshold α), we might be able to say which has seen more recent shaking and of what severity. This does not directly address the age control for the history and this remains a significant problem.

I wrote a simple code to explore this problem with the hope that it helps us explain and isolate the basic controls on fragility distributions. See the figure below which presents the fragility distributions through the experiment.The algorithm is simple:

  • Set up: Specify number of objects, the initial α distribution (assume normal), the ripening rate distribution (also normal; this is the loss of fragility per year), the timing of the earthquake, the threshold α, and the max time
  • Interseismic period 1: ripen α until the earthquake (begin and end are the upper two plots below)
  • Earthquake: remove α < threshold α (third plot below) and reset those α drawing from the same initial distribution (fourth plot below)
  • Interseismic period 2: ripen α until the end of the model time (final plot below)

Fragility distributions through the experiment. Upper plot is initial α. 2nd plot is α and the end of interseismic period 1. 3rd plot shows removed objects with α < threshold α. 4th plot is reset distribution of < threshold α Note that some α results below threshold α. Lowest plot shows continued ripening until the end of the model.

The additional two figures show the evolution of fragility with time of a subset of the objects and a spatial view of the randomly positioned features, their fragility at the time of the earthquake, and the circled objects that failed. The evolutionary diagram helps illustrate the interruption of the more fragile features by the event while the others do not notice. The map provides an idea of the search challenge that this scenario presents.

Evolution of fragility of a subset of the objects. The red star indicates the time of the earthquake and the threshold α.
Map view randomly positioned features, their fragility at the time of the earthquake, and the circled objects that failed.
Maybe more realistic with a more sparse set of features and a lower threshold α (0.3 as opposed to 0.4 above).

This is just a sketch of the problem, but it is a toy model in which we can explore the importance of the distribution widths, timing of earthquake, etc.

The MATLAB code is in this repository:; make sure to get the script PBRevolution.m and functions ripenPBR.m and shakePBRs.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Eminent earthquake scientists: Clarence Allen and Robert Wallace oral histories

For some "light reading" over the winter break, I have enjoyed a read of oral histories of Clarence Allen (Caltech) and Robert Wallace (USGS).
EARTHQUAKES, MINERALS AND ME: WITH THE USGS, 1942-1995 by Robert E. Wallace; Oral History Interviews With Stanley Scott; USGS Open-File Report 96-260

Connections EERI Oal History Series: Clarence Allen with interviewer Stanley Scott
CLARENCE R. ALLEN (1925-2021) INTERVIEWED BY DAVID A. VALONE Caltech archives. This latter one has a bit more about Caltech and is slightly less polished than the first.

Maybe I at times too sentimental, but I found these personal and scientific histories throught provoking and inspiring, not only for their tellings of important steps in the history of earthquake science and service, but also for their modest, laconic, and matter of fact story telling. I am also fortunate to have substantial memories of interacting with both of them personally and also of the transition at the end of their careers and the beginning of mine (I entered graduate school at Stanford University in Fall 1989). I also appreciate the effort of EERI to accumulate those and other oral histories.

One thing that comes to mind is that it would be nice to include some histories from women who have contributed in these areas. I will work on that for a future blog post.

Bob Wallace was inspiring as an earthquake geologist. I followed some of his work quite closely as I shared an obsession with geomorphic indicators of faulting, although certainly with less of an impact...
Just a couple of examples from his papers:

  1. 1949 - Wallace, R. E., Structure of a portion of the San Andreas rift in southern California: Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, v. 60, n. 4, p. 781-806.. This is cited as one of the earliest focused mapping efforts along the San Andreas Fault. He mapped substantial offset along the San Andreas Fault and also worried about the fault zone core and interactions of the drainage network with the fault zone. At one point, I colored the detailed map to appreciate it better.
  2. 1968 - Wallace, R. E., Notes on stream channels offset by the San Andreas fault, southern Coast Ranges, California, in Dickinson, W. R., and Grantz, Arthur, eds., Proceedings of conference on geologic problems of San Andreas fault system: Stanford University Publications in Geological Science, v. 11, p. 6-21.. This was a landmark in my mind as he noted offsets along the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain as indicators of short and longer term indicators of recurrent fault slip. It was in a somewhat difficult to find publication. But, being around Stanford University (and having to move out of the Geology Corner after the Loma Prieta Earthquake), there were numerous copies to be found. Figures 6 and 7 of the histograms of numbers of channels with certain offset sizes was something we followed up on a fair bit.
  3. 1990 - Wallace, R. E., (editor) The San Andreas Fault System, California: U. S. Geological Survey Prof. Paper 1515, 283 p.. This was his magnum opus. I was lucky once to meet him in his office at USGS Menlo Park and he asked if I had a copy yet. I did not even though I had stared at it. He reached into his filing cabinet and gave me his copy! I should have asked him to sign it or something but I certainly treasure that copy. It has now been rebuilt a few times...
  4. 1992 - Wallace, R. E., Ground-squirrel mounds and patterned ground along the San Andreas fault in central California: U. S. Geological Survey, Open-file report n.91-149, p. 1-21.. This was a modest contribution, but I had a couple of conversations with him about it as we shared our enthusiasm for the Carrizo Plain. In his related GSA presentation, he even mentioned me as someone who might pick it up! Scared the crap out of me. We never really did a systematic effort on this but it remains a fascinating problem. I talk about it with people every time I get to the Carrizo Plain.
THere is a lot more to say and remember about Bob Wallace. My memories of him are also tied to Kerry Sieh who worked with Bob and honored him by naming the offset channel he explored in the 1968 paper "Wallace Creek". How many times have I read the Sieh and Jahns 1984 paper: Sieh, K. E., and Jahns, R. H. (1984). Holocene activity of the San Andreas fault at Wallace Creek, California. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 95, 883–896.. We even revisited this in our 2019 paper.

One of my San ANdreas Fault tour videos over the Carrizo Plain. Hillshades produced by me from the B4 project at OpenTopography.

I did not interact with Clarence Allen as much as I did with Bob Wallace, but I did have a few nice conversations with him. I think he was more serious in the conversations than I was. They main ones were when I was thinking about going to Caltech to work with Kerry Sieh. Clarence and I talked about science, but also about trout fishing. I regret never taking him up on an invite to fish in the San Bernardino Mountains. I think my father had fished some of the same places there around and below Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear Lake.
Two papers among many I would like to highlight from Clarence:

  1. Allen, C. R. (1968). The tectonic environments of seismically active and inactive areas along the San Andreas fault system. Proceedings of Conference of Geologic Problems of San Andreas Fault System, 5(1496), 70–80.. This stands as an important first order characterization of the San Andreas Fault system and the recognition that the geology was an important control on the current behavior of the system. I have used Figure 1 here and there over the years when I kick of talks on the San Andreas Fault.
  2. Geological Criteria for Evaluating Seismicity: Address as Retiring President of The Geological Society of America, Miami Beach, Florida, November 1974 CLARENCE R. ALLEN GSA Bulletin (1975) 86 (8): 1041–1057. This is a classic that helps to introduce the concepts of earthquake geology and the value of the geologic record in the study of recently active faults.
My recent attempt to follow Prof. Allen's ideas about the San Andreas Fault (some edits on the caption from Mike Oskin; we made this as a prototype for a SCEC request). The geology of the plate boundary shows the SAFS progressively dismembering the former subduction system (as indicated by the paired Mesozoic metamorphic--green and granitic--red rocks) (; upper panel). This framework is a first order control on the behavior of the system (lower panel): active faults (USGS and CGS 2021) and M>4 seismicity ( overlain on the GMRT (Ryan, et al., 2009).

Sunday, December 5, 2021

AI art: what does " Tectonic Geomorphic San Andreas Fault" look like?

I saw a link to on twitter and people were posting what they got out of using their research or dissertation titles as a prompt. It is pretty amazing.

I gave it a try. My dissertation was entitled "Coupled Tectonic Deformation and Geomorphic Degradation along the San Andreas Fault System". I tried that as well as a shorter version "Tectonic Geomorphic San Andreas Fault" with a couple of different styles. I have to ponder the results. Some of the other examples work well when there is an object more recognizeable (such as a bird or T-cell), or somehow I need to give it a more interesting prompt. But the results are interesting. I like the trading card format.

Later on, I saw something about how the company could sell the "art" as NFTs but I guess I am not too worried about it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Remembering Paul J. Umhoefer

I recently wrote this memorial for the Geological Society of America Structural Geology and Tectonics Division (which I am now beginning my stint as chairman or soon will). That is the reason for the first person plural.

We heard with great sadness and shock of the passing of our dear friend and colleague Professor Paul J. Umhoefer (Northern Arizona University) in late November 2021. Some of us saw him at the 2021 GSA meeting and to lose him so soon after weighs on us.

Paul Umhoefer was a great scientist, mentor and teacher, and servant to his professional community and department. He was well known for his research in tectonics, basin analysis, structural geology with carefully collected field data from the western US, Baja California, and Anatolia.

Much of his research was done in close collaboration with his many students at NAU. He was a strong mentor who guided many of those projects to publication and the students went on to success, especially in academia and the petroleum and geo-environmental industries. His professional colleagues appreciated his guidance and invitation to join interesting projects.

Paul was a tireless leader in the geoscience community. He helped to propel important community initiatives, including Margins/GeoPrisms. He not only contributed synthetic ideas but was an integrator and conciliator. He was an effective chair of his department helping guide it in a time of important growth. We are grateful for this leadership in the Geological Society of America Structural Geology and Tectonics Division where he was a long time active member, proponent of GSA fellows, and had recently completed the arc of leadership of the division.

Along with his tireless work ethic, Paul was enthusiastic and gregarious with a big smile and a joke for his friends and colleagues delivered in his deep creaky voice. He loved to talk about ideas: geoscience, politics, sports.

We counted on seeing him again soon. We are sorry to lose him and our thoughts are with his family and close friends.

Paul Umhoefer in one of his favorite places: the southern Baja California coast line with uplifted terraces and Tertiary sedimentary and volcanic rocks awaiting his attention (Arrowsmith photo, 2005)

--Ramon Arrowsmith (incoming Division Chair) on behalf of the Geological Society of America Structural Geology and Tectonics Division