Research Highlights

Short stories  |  Podcasts  |  Videos

Scientists at the TO focus on geological processes occurring at the boundaries of Earth's tectonic plates. The timescales of these processes span from a few tens of seconds (the typical duration of an earthquake) to tens of millions of years (the time it takes to build mountains).

These videos and stories describe TO research in everyday terms.

Short Stories

Earthquake in a Maze: the 2012 M8.6 Sumatra Earthquake

Under the Hood of the Earthquake Machine

Japan’s March 11, 2011 Tohoku Earthquake

Superficial Simplicity of the 2010 Baja California Earthquake

Earthquakes & tsunamis in Sumatra: What we have learned

Science behind the 2008 China earthquake

Caltech's journey to the center of the Earth

Earthquake season in the Himalayas

The unusual case of the Mexican subduction zone

International Innovation Earthquakes and Mountains - in International Innovation

Himalaya Animation

  • Groks Science interview with Joe Kirschvink (Feb 2013) - 25 minutes
    Professor Joe Kirschvink discusses oxygen, cyanobacteria, and the Medea hypothesis (Listen to podcast - scroll to 2/13/13 Oxygen the Menace)

  • NPR's On Point interview with Mark Simons (March 2009) - 45 minutes
    TO's Mark Simons is one of four scientists interviewed about the science of volcanoes, after the eruptions of Mount Redoubt, Alaska and an undersea volano off the coast of Tonga (Listen to podcast)

  • NPR's Earth and Sky interview with Jean-Philippe Avouac (December 2008) - 8 minutes
    How satellite imagery is revolutionizing the way we see earthquakes today (Listen to podcast )
  • Under the Hood of the Earthquake Machine (2/13/2013) - 50 minutes
    Watson Lecture by Nadia Lapusta
    The San Andreas and similar faults separate two tectonic plates slowly moving in opposite directions. The faults can remain locked for many years, then catch up in sudden dramatic rupture events perceived as earthquakes. These occasional fast motions co-exist with much slower fault slips. This talk will describe how laboratory-derived friction laws and sophisticated numerical models can reproduce, in remarkable detail, all stages of past fault behavior - locked, slowly moving and earthquake-producing - bringing us closer to understanding earthquake physics. Such calibrated models will provide new ways to assess seismic hazards and forecast the seismic response to both natural and man-made perturbations. [Watch video on iTunes U - scroll to #33]

  • Journeying to the Earth's Past in the Isotope Time Machine (3/22/2012) - 50 minutes
    Watson Lecture by John Eiler
    Earth Science is a form of history with the basic goals of reconstructing and understanding the unique events and life forms of our planet's past, many of which are beyond our experience of the modern world. This talk explores how the study of isotopes in rocks and fossils lets us peer into the past and quantitatively reconstruct geological and biological evolution. Isotope geoscience began with the pioneers of the Manhattan project; recent innovations allow us to reconstruct ice ages hundreds of millions of years in the past and measure the body temperatures of dinosaurs [Watch video on iTunes U - scroll to #24]

  • Roof of the World (BBC) (broadcast 1998) - 50 minutes
    Documentary by BBC about mountain building, including an interview with Jean-Philippe Avouac who explains how the Himalayan mountains continue to rise because of earthquakes (video no longer available)

  • Good Vibrations Inside the Earth (4/13/2011) - 50 minutes
    Watson Lecture by Jennifer Jackson
    Professor Jackson shows how modern devices such as diamond-anvil cells and high-power infrared lasers can be used on minerals to recreate the crushing pressures and flaming temperatures suspected to exist deep within Earth, while extremely brilliant synchrotron x-radiation probes the minerals' properties [Watch video on iTunes U - scroll to #17]

  • Rising Mountains and Sinking Oceans: Earthquakes That Shape the Earth (10/27/2010) - 50 mins
    Watson Lecture by Jean-Philippe Avouac
    Why are the Himalaya mountains so high? Why are ocean trenches off the shores of South America and Sumatra so deep? Combining modern space and traditional geological techniques and field observations, Jean-Philippe Avouac with his colleagues and students have collected an exceptional set of observations of the most active plate boundaries, the Himalya, Sumatra, and South America. These observations bring new light on the physics of earthquakes and on how they relate to rising mountains and sinking oceans. [Watch video on iTunes U - scroll to #12]

  • The Ancient California River and how it Carved the Grand Canyon in the Age of T. Rex (4/7/2010) - 50 mins
    Watson Lecture by Brian Wernicke
    Anyone who stands at the rim of grand canyon is confronted with one of the most humbling spectacles in the solar system, a high, featureless plateau interrupted by a mile-deep chasm. Its origin has been controversial ever since John Wesley Powell’s historic navigation of the colorado river in 1869. A long-held consensus is that the canyon is six million years old and was carved by the river. This lecture will examine data collected over the last three years suggesting instead that the canyon was incised between 70 and 80 million years ago, by a river flowing in the opposite direction to the modern colorado river.
    [Watch video on iTunes U - scroll to #9]

  • Modern Methods of Observing Earthquakes: What We Have Learned About Haiti and Chile using Seismology and Space Observations (3/31/2010) - 90 minutes
    Mark Simons and Anthony Sladen were among the speakers at a public panel discussion (Watch video of event)

  • Intersonic Earthquakes: What Laboratory Earthquakes Teach us About Real Ones (2/17/2010) - 50 mins
    Watson Lecture by Ares Rosakis
    Directly studying earthquakes presents a host of insurmountable difficulties, the least of which is our inability to trigger earthquakes of various magnitudes at will and the lack of means of scrutinizing the behavior at depth while the quake propagates. We have developed techniques to produce miniature laboratory earthquakes and follow their progress with high-speed imaging tools. Our quakes mimic actual quakes, and have demonstrated the existence of "super-shear" or "intersonic" rupture speeds. The propagating fronts of such intersonic ruptures feature a Mach-cone of shear shock waves similar to that of supersonic aircraft. This unusual feature produces potentially catastrophic ground shaking signatures (equivalent to sonic booms) with unexpected implications to seismic hazard analysis. (Watch video on iTunesU - scroll to #8)

  • Earthquakes and Plate Tectonics (2008) - 2 minutes
    With the advent of plate tectonics, it's become apparent that episodes of extreme geologic upheaval -- like earthquakes -- are much more than simply random events. Comments by several scientists, including Joann Stock, Caltech professor of geology and geophysics
    Watch iTunes U video podcast by Intelecom

  • The Pacific-North American Plate Boundary, Mexican Style(1/23/2008) - 47 minutes
    by Joann Stock, Caltech professor of geology and geophysics
    Watson Lecture on how studies of volcanic and sedimentary rocks in Mexico and southernmost California help scientists understand the slip history of the San Andreas fault system farther north in California. She also explains how dramatic changes in the geology and geography of land and ocean have occurred in the plate-boundary region.
    (Video no longer available)

  • Continental Deformation: Making the Basin and Range (2007) - 8 minutes
    Story covering a team of geologists, including Brian Wernicke, Caltech's Chandler Family Professor of Geology, who are combining fieldwork in the American Southwest with animated computer modeling to understand how the Basin and Range's gological drama has played out over the last 36 million years. (Watch video: go to American Natural History Museum, Science Bulletins, find the category "Earth," click on "Documentaries," and scroll down to September 2007 "Continental Deformation: Creating the Basin and Range.")

  • Natural Disasters: What We Know vs. What We Do (10/18/2006) - 59 minutes
    by Kerry Sieh, Caltech's Sharp Professor of Geology
    Watson Lecture on how catastrophic natural events in Western Sumatra, Iran, and New Orleans provide important illustrations of the disparity between what Earth scientists know about natural hazards and what has been done to mitigate those hazards' effects.
    (Video currently no longer available)

  • All the Faults in the World: The Cutting Edge of Tectonics (5/7/2003) - 47 minutes
    by Brian Wernicke, Caltech's Chandler Family Professor of Geology
    Watson Lecture on how Caltech uses diverse new technologies to observe the earth's movements, both now and in the past, and to determine the physical laws that govern these motions.
    (Video currently no longer available)

© Tectonics Observatory :: California Institute of Technology
Last updated: May 2, 2014 :: Contact Us


Tectonics Observatory