News Articles


Is the coast toast? Exploring Cascadia earthquake probabilities (November 2017)

The earthquake hazard in the Pacific Northwest due to subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate beneath North America (Fig. 1A) is drawing much media attention. A The New Yorker article (Schulz, 2015) begins, “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.” The article quotes a FEMA official saying “everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” CBS stated, “Northwest in fear of massive earthquake, tsunami.” NPR reported “Sleeping giant overdue.” Stories include statements like, “In the next 50 years, there is a 1-in-10 chance a ‘really big one’ will erupt,” or, “the odds of the big Cascadia earthquake in the next fifty years are roughly one in three.” Continue reading…


“Unintentional comedy ­ errors in movies and educational material ­ as a teaching tool” (BBC Science; October 2017)

Hollywood Science

In the quest for a good storyline and lots of action, Hollywood doesn’t always get its science right. The science of geophysics can get mangled in the plot. In the 1997 blockbuster ‘Volcano’, Tommy Lee Jones fights to save residents from volcanic lava flowing through the streets of LA, however the city is located neither near a hot spot nor a subduction zone which would be needed for a volcano to emerge. But rather than worrying about this and getting angry and shouting at the screen, top geophysicist Seth Stein, at Northwestern University, says that pointing out scientific errors can be a great place to engage students in the subject and help inject the healthy skepticism needed to be a good scientist.” Listen below or on BBC Science (14:40 – 20:38).


Here’s why experts can’t say when the next big quake will hit Southern Illinois (September 2017)

Q: Years ago, experts predicted a major earthquake for the area in about 50 years due to the New Madrid fault. The longer the delay, the more severe it will be. What do the seismic experts at St. Louis University think now?


A: The only valid opinion you’ll hear from reputable experts is this: People who say they can predict the next earthquake within a narrow range of dates are standing on the shakiest ground imaginable. Continue reading and watch video…


The Shocking Truth about Aftershocks (April 2017)

After an earthquake, some aftershocks go on for an astonishingly long time.

We’ve discussed earthquakes before, and everybody’s probably pretty aware of the fact that when you have an earthquake, you’re probably going to have an aftershock. Or two. Or two dozen. Most of us think those aftershocks will last, at most, a few days.

But studies suggest that some aftershocks will go on – are you ready for this? – for a few centuries: Continue reading…


Anniversary of 1812 Illinois Earthquake Ushers in Preparedness Month (February 2017)

Exactly 205 years ago today, one of the strongest earthquakes ever to strike the central United States shook Illinois and surrounding states.

The epicenter of the quake was near New Madrid, Missouri, in a seismic zone which encompasses three fault lines that run roughly from Cairo, Illinois, to Marked Tree, Arkansas.

In recognition of the threat, Illinois’ emergency management agency is promoting earthquake preparedness throughout the month of February. Continue reading and watch video…


Answer as to why earthquakes occur in clusters (December 2016)

Why do earthquakes sometimes occur in clusters? This question has baffled geologists for years, but now there is an answer following a new computer model.

The computer model has been devised by researchers from Northwestern University. The model has shown that earthquake faults retain, geologically speaking, a ‘sense of memory.’

According to seismologist Professor Seth Stein, in communication with Digital Journal: “if it’s been a long time since a large earthquake, then, even after another quake happens, the fault’s ‘memory’ sometimes isn’t wiped out, so there’s still a good chance of having another.” Continue reading…


Earthquake faults are smarter than we usually think: New computer model shows clusters can occur on faults with ‘long-term memory’ (December 2016)

EVANSTON – Northwestern University researchers now have an answer to a vexing age-old question: Why do earthquakes sometimes come in clusters?

The research team has developed a new computer model and discovered that earthquake faults are smarter — in the sense of having better memory — than seismologists have long assumed.

“If it’s been a long time since a large earthquake, then, even after another quake happens, the fault’s ‘memory’ sometimes isn’t wiped out, so there’s still a good chance of having another,” said Seth Stein, the study’s senior author and the William Deering Professor of Geological Sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

“As a result, a cluster of earthquakes occurs,” he said. “Earthquake clusters imply that faults have a long-term memory.” Continue reading…


New Insights into North America’s Midcontinent Rift (August 2016)

The Midcontinent Rift has characteristics of a large igneous province, causing geologists to rethink some long-standing assumptions about how this giant feature formed.

Some of the Midwest’s most scenic vistas are the black volcanic cliffs that tower above the brilliant blue waters of Lake Superior’s north shore. How these formed more than a billion years ago is an amazing story, illustrating one of plate tectonics’ most important processes—how continents form and break up. Continue reading...


Is Middle America Due For a Huge Earthquake? (June 2016)

In the early 19th century, a series of massive quakes rocked Missouri. Some experts predict that the state could be in for another round of violent shaking, while others warn that a big quake could strike elsewhere in the center of the continent.

As I drove across the I-40 bridge into Memphis, I was reassured: chances were slim that a massive earthquake would wrest the road from its supports, and plunge me more than a hundred feet into the murky Mississippi. Thanks to a recently completed $260 million seismic retrofit, the bridge—a chokepoint for traffic in the central U.S.—is now fortified. It’s also decked out with strong-motion accelerometers and bookended by borehole seismometers to record convulsions in the earth. Continue reading…


Protect your Chicago water heater against earthquakes? There’s a better bet (February 2016)


Chicago homeowners, take note: you’ll get a better return on your investment if you buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot is high, rather than pay to secure your water heater against earthquake damage.

That’s the conclusion of a Northwestern University class of geosciences and civil engineering students who decided to estimate these costs and benefits after an Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokesperson urged Illinois residents to protect their water heaters against earthquakes. Continue reading…


Sharing Lake Superior’s Secrets: Geologists explain the incredible story behind the area’s beauty in new video (December 2015)

EVANSTON, Ill. — Husband-and wife geologists Seth and Carol Stein have spent many vacations enjoying the recreational wonders of Lake Superior and the surrounding area. Now they are putting their scholarly know-how to work in a serious quest to understand the 1.1 billion-year-old secrets of Lake Superior and the mysterious Midcontinent Rift.

Seth Stein, the William Deering Professor in Northwestern’s department of Earth and planetary sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and Carol Stein, professor of Earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, are working with colleagues to share the amazing story behind the scenery. Continue reading and watch video…


Seth Stein: The quake killer (November 2015)

The US government says that a huge earthquake risk lurks in the heart of the country, where a series of large shocks hit 200 years ago. Seth Stein says that kind of warning is dead wrong.

Continue reading


What Nepal can teach about improving earthquake resilience in developing world
(April 2015)

The earthquake in Nepal is the latest event to highlight the challenges to and opportunities for reducing vulnerability to earthquakes that strike developing countries.

Seth Stein, a seismologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and coauthor of an analysis on approaches to preparing for extreme geohazards that was unveiled at an international geophysics symposium in Vienna in March, puts it bluntly:

“Natural hazards are a big problem in the developing world, as are a gazillion other things,” he says. “Imagine you have a fair number of towns that don’t have a school. If you’re the minister of education in some earthquake-prone developing country, would you rather build 75 earthquake-resistant schools or 100 non-earthquake-resistant schools?”

“The answer to that question is not obvious,” he says, in no small part because cultural factors can influence the answer as well as scientific or economic factors.
Continue reading…


Mysterious Midcontinent Rift is a Geological Hybrid: Evolution of 2,000-mile-long underground crack occurred in three stages (October 2014)

EVANSTON, Ill. — An international team of geologists has a new explanation for how the Midwest’s biggest geological feature — an ancient and giant 2,000-mile-long underground crack that starts in Lake Superior and runs south to Oklahoma and to Alabama — evolved.

Scientists from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the University of Gottingen in Germany and the University of Oklahoma report that the 1.1 billion-year-old Midcontinent Rift is a geological hybrid, having formed in three stages: it started as an enormous narrow crack in the Earth’s crust; that space then filled with an unusually large amount of volcanic rock; and, finally, the igneous rocks were forced to the surface, forming the beautiful scenery seen today in the Lake Superior area of the Upper Midwest. Continue reading…


A Risky Business (October 2014)

When can we expect the next tsunami or perhaps a gigantic earthquake? People living on the coast of Japan or in cities like Los Angeles have no idea, and live with the risk. Seismologist Seth Stein elaborates strategies for dealing with incalculable risk.

The wall is ten metres high and stretches along the coast for kilometres. But when the wave hits, it dwindles away to nothing. Masses of dirt-laden water surge over the seawall and crash down on the other side, sweeping away everything in their path: traffic lights, cars, entire ships. Seth Stein stops the video and lets the images speak for themselves. When the devastating tsunami hit the east coast of Japan in 2011 and caused the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, no one could have foreseen the scale of the catastrophe. The earthquake that triggered the tsunami was 20 times more powerful than seismologists had expected, and the size of the tidal wave outstripped the boldest predictions. Continue reading…


Solving the Midwest’s Biggest Geologic Mystery: New gravity data and current rifting in Africa shed light on Midcontinent Rift formation (March 2014)

EVANSTON, Ill. — Geologists from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Oklahoma and Purdue University have a new explanation for the Midwest’s biggest geologic mystery: What caused the giant 2,000-mile-long rift that starts in Lake Superior and runs south to Oklahoma and Alabama?

Using new data from the North American Midcontinent Rift and observations of rifting occurring today between Africa and Arabia, the scientists propose that the Midcontinent Rift formed when rocks now in South America rifted away from North America, forming a new ocean. As a result, rocks from the two sides match like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Continue reading…


Earthquakes can’t be predicted. But millions of dollars are spent trying to forecast them – warning the public which regions are dangerous, what the chances are of a quake in the next number of years and how strong the shaking might be. But following the failures of the Japanese system to identify the danger on the north-east coast, struck by a giant tsunami in 2011, many experts are saying that the dream of hazard assessment is an illusion. We may never know enough about the mechanisms of the Earth to reliably foresee deadly shaking. Listen below or continue reading and watch video…


Seth A. Stein, professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern University, has been appointed the William Deering Professor in Earth and Planetary Sciences.

His research focuses on plate tectonics, seismology and space geodesy.

He conducts ongoing studies of earthquakes and tectonic processes including the New Madrid seismic zone in the central U.S., the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and the Andes. Other studies focus on the thermal evolution of oceanic lithosphere. Continue reading…


Father-son team reassesses natural, financial hazards (November 2012)

In 1960, Jerome Stein, associate professor of economics, took his 7-year-old son Seth to hear a talk about continental drift by geologist Donald Eckelmann, also a dean at Brown at the time. Seth demonstrated his early aptitude for geology by jumping up when Eckelmann asked for questions.

“He said, ‘You mean it’s like bars of Ivory soap in the bathtub?’” Jerome recalled. “This was the beginning of the earth science continental drift, sea
floor spreading, which was very new. So he was in at the beginning. … No one had ever heard of these things before.”

Seth went on to study geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology.

“It was the best time for geology ever,” Seth said, calling the 1960s “the decade of geology.” Continue reading…


Seth Stein: The quake killer (November 2011)

The US government says that a huge earthquake risk lurks in the heart of the country, where a series of large shocks hit 200 years ago. Seth Stein says that kind of warning is dead wrong.

The lethal fault cuts through the middle of a Tennessee bean field and then ducks beneath the Mississippi River, making a beeline for New Madrid, Missouri. Named the Reelfoot fault, this geological crack combined with neighbouring faults two centuries ago to unleash a series of devastating earthquakes that have been called the biggest to strike the contiguous United States in recorded history. On government hazard maps, the New Madrid region stands out as a red bull’s eye. This spot in the middle of the continent — far from the plate boundaries that produce Earth’s greatest quakes — would seem to be every bit as dangerous as San Francisco or Los Angeles. Continue reading….


Apocalyptic Midwest Quake Predictions Overblown, Scientists Now Say (October 2010)

Fears of the next big earthquake in America’s heartland are just a bunch of hype.

That’s according to a new book that explains how there’s little scientific evidence to back up the apocalyptic predictions that a set of faults in the Midwest that set off huge quakes a couple centuries ago, known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, could rupture violently again soon.

In “Disaster Deferred: How New Science Is Changing Our View of Earthquake Hazards in the Midwest”(Columbia University Press, October 2010), author and geologist Seth Stein tries to reassure folks living near the infamous New Madrid faults by explaining the science behind earthquakes in the middle of the continent. Continue reading…


Major quakes could be aftershocks (November 2009)

Many recent earthquakes may have been the aftershocks of large quakes that occurred hundreds of years ago, according to scientists.

In the journal Nature, researchers described a new pattern in the frequency of aftershocks that could explain some major quakes.

They found that, away from plate boundaries, echoes of past earthquakes can continue for several hundred years. Continue reading…