October 11, 2019

Dr. Frederick Chester ’83 has spent his career studying the Earth’s ever-shifting plates and their impact on society. Combining his love for the outdoors and his passion for math and science, geology was the perfect fit.

As a professor and holder of the David Bullock Harris Chair in Geology, Dr. Frederick Chester ’83 has spent his career studying the Earth’s ever-shifting plates and their impact on society. Since completing his master’s and Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, Chester has worked alongside students and other scientists to make groundbreaking discoveries concerning the Earth’s crust. 

What piqued your interest in geosciences and studying earthquakes?

Growing up in Southern California, I remember waking up to the San Fernando earthquake in 1971. It literally shook me out of bed that morning! Thankfully, it didn’t cause much damage in our area, but it was extremely destructive in others. That experience definitely piqued my interest in studying the movements of the Earth’s crust. Paired with my love of the outdoors and my passion for math and science, geology seemed to be a natural fit for me.

Tell us about your research.

I study plate tectonics and the mechanical properties of rock with a particular focus on physics of the earthquake source. I also have a few emerging projects concerning fluid-filled reservoirs and the behavior of rock formation. Because faulting in the Earth is so complex, each problem that arises in our research is like solving a puzzle as we try to determine the multiple factors that influence an earthquake’s occurrence and effects. Not only are these questions particularly interesting to me, but they also have significance to society in forecasting and mitigating the hazards of future earthquakes.         

What is a fault and how can it trigger an earthquake?

A fault is a break in the Earth’s upper crust that can become stuck as crustal blocks move and elastically deform, building up forces on the fault surface until the forces exceeds fault strength. This causes the two blocks to suddenly slip, triggering the seismic waves that produce ground motion that you feel during an earthquake. Faults, which are usually part of larger fault systems, are pressed together under large loads from the Earth’s plates, whose movements are driven by convection within the Earth’s interior. That convection causes plates to dive under one another or separate from each other, which builds mountain ranges and creates new ocean basins.