Meet Lucy Jones, “the Earthquake Lady”

As part of her plan to prepare Americans for the next “big one,” the seismologist tackles the dangerous phenomenon of denial

Lucy Jones is among the world's most influential seismologists—and perhaps the most recognizable. (David Zentz / Aurora Select)
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One of Lucy Jones’ first memories is of an earthquake. It struck north of Los Angeles, not far from her family home in Ventura, and as the ground lurched, her mother guided 2-year-old Lucy and her older brother and sister into a hallway and shielded them with her body. Add that her great-great-grandparents are buried literally in the San Andreas fault and it’s hard not to think that her fate was preordained.

Today Jones is among the world’s most influential seismologists—and perhaps the most recognizable. Her file cabinets bulge with fan letters, among them at least one marriage proposal. “The Earthquake Lady,” she’s called. A science adviser for the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena, Jones, 57, is an expert on foreshocks, having authored or co-authored 90 research papers, including the first to use statistical analysis to predict the likelihood that any given temblor will be followed by a bigger one.That research has been the basis for 11 earthquake advisories issued by the state of California since 1985.

Charged with improving the nation’s response to natural disaster, Jones’ specialty, increasingly, is another complex natural phenomenon: denial, that dangerous unwillingness to acknowledge the inevitable. What good is scientific knowledge, in other words, if people don’t respond to it?

You might have caught her on TV trying to help people understand earthquake risks after the Eastern Seaboard felt the 5.8 quake epicentered in Virginia this past August or after Tohoku, Japan, kept rocking and rolling after the 9.0 quake there last March. “She has the bearing of your terrific next-door neighbor who takes superb care of her window boxes. And yet she is as learned as anyone in the field,” says “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, who has interviewed Jones numerous times on television.

“I’m everybody’s mother,” she likes to joke, aware that her gender—while not an asset when she was at MIT in the ’70s—is now a plus. “Women are more reassuring after an event,” she says, recalling how moved people were years back when she conducted post-quake TV interviews holding Niels, her 1-year-old son, in her arms (he’s 21 now). That mother-and-child tableau cemented her position as the informed voice of calm in truly unsettling times.

“Lucy brings magnetism to what is normally a dull subject: preparedness,” says Paul Schulz, CEO of the American Red Cross of Greater Los Angeles, whom Jones recently accompanied to Chile to study the impact of its 8.8 magnitude quake in 2010. On that trip, thousands of miles from home, a woman approached Jones and asked for her autograph.

Earthquakes may be classified as foreshocks, mainshocks and aftershocks. All occur when energy in the earth’s crust is released suddenly, forcing tectonic plates to shift. What differentiates them is their relation to each other in space and time. A foreshock is only a foreshock if it happens to occur before a bigger quake on the same fault system. An aftershock occurs after a bigger quake.

A lot of people had pondered foreshocks before Jones did, but she asked a critical question: After an earthquake, is there a statistical method to predict the chances that it was a precursor to a larger jolt? The answer was yes, as Jones demonstrated in a 1985 paper and subsequent studies analyzing every quake in the region’s recorded history. She found that the probability that an earthquake will trigger a bigger one does not depend on the magnitude of the first earthquake but instead is related to its location and interaction with fault systems.

The southern San Andreas ruptures and releases energy on average every 150 years. The last time was more than 300 years ago, which means that Los Angeles and environs may be overdue for a major quake. There’s no way to predict precisely when California’s next “big one” will come, Jones says (or even that it will occur on the San Andreas), but people need to get ready, as was made painfully clear in a massive 2008 study Jones led.

More than 300 scientists and other experts took part in drafting the 308-page ShakeOut Earthquake Scenario. Geologists determined which section of the San Andreas was most likely to blow, and conceived of a 7.8 magnitude tremor. They posited 55 seconds of strong shaking in downtown L.A.—more than seven times the duration of the last big L.A.-area temblor, the 1994 Northridge quake, a magnitude 6.7 generated along a previously unknown fault. There would be landslides and liquefaction and massive damage to roads, rail lines, water conveyance tunnels and aqueducts, electrical and natural gas lines, and telecommunications cables.


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