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Delta Independent Science Board Member Spotlight - Brian Atwater

December 2011

With the Delta so linked to levees and marshes, it made sense for the Delta Independent Science Board (ISB) to include an earthquake geologist with roots in the Delta’s tidal wetlands.

Brian Atwater brings more than 30 years of experience in estuarine geology to the Delta ISB. He gained some of that experience in the Delta itself.

Back in the late 1970s, Atwater was doing field work from a trailer on subsided peatland of Jersey Island, six miles east of Antioch. Freighters passing “overhead,” in the adjacent San Joaquin River, would rattle cups on the trailer kitchen.

He was doing doctoral studies on the Delta’s geology. The work extended to the botany of the Delta’s remnant freshwater tidal wetlands, and it yielded a set of U.S. Geological Survey maps, published in 1982, that remain in use today as guides to levee substrates and historical waterways.

In 1985, figuring he was leaving the estuary behind, he moved to the Pacific Northwest. But he soon put his Delta experience to unexpected use.

The Delta had taught him that marshland tules can keep their heads just above rising sea level for thousands of years. That’s how the Delta’s peat became thick.

Pushing cores along the Washington coast, he found something else: wetland peat that alternates with tidal-flat mud. Recurring earthquakes had lowered the Washington wetlands by five feet or so. That finding launched a series of discoveries later recounted in The Orphan Tsunami of 1700: Japanese Clues to a Parent Earthquake in North America, a scientific detective story about earthquake and tsunami hazards in the Pacific Northwest.

Branching farther from the Delta, Atwater has now studied earthquake and tsunami geology on the shores of Chile, Alaska, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean. He has advised earthquake and tsunami scientists in Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and spent seven months in Indonesia as a Fulbright Scholar. Products of the overseas work include international public-safety booklets based on eyewitness accounts.

Atwater has been a U.S. Geological Survey scientist since the middle 1970s. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. On his service with the ISB, he says that he is grateful for the chance to return to his Delta roots.

To view Brian Atwater’s Delta ISB bio, click here.

In April, the Science Program featured his work in the article “Pacific Northwest has History of Giant Quakes like Japan's Recent 9.0.” To view that article, click here.

Coequal goals

The Delta Stewardship Council was created in legislation to achieve the state mandated coequal goals for the Delta. "'Coequal goals' means the two goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. The coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place." (CA Water Code §85054)