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UC Berkeley Press Release

Seismologist and earthquake hazard expert Bruce Bolt dies at 75

– Bruce A. Bolt, for decades one of the state's most visible experts on earthquakes and seismic hazards and professor emeritus of earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley, died Thursday, July 21, of pancreatic cancer at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland. He was 75.

Bruce Bolt
Seismologist Bruce Bolt, professor emeritus of earth and planetary science. (1986 photo by Ben Ailes)

As director of the University of California Seismographic Stations for 28 years, he traveled the world to investigate the sites of major earthquakes, lectured on earthquakes and earthquake hazards around the country and internationally, and served on numerous local, state and national panels and commissions. He even wrote two popular books: "Earthquakes: A Primer" (1978) and "Inside the Earth: Evidence from Earthquakes" (1982).

He served for 15 years on the California Seismic Safety Commission and was its chairman in 1986. According to a statement issued Friday by the California Seismic Safety Commission, "Former Commissioner Bolt was one of California's most influential policymakers in earthquake safety. . He was particularly renowned for his ability to increase the public's awareness about earthquakes and motivate legislators to improve earthquake safety. Professor Bolt leaves a rich legacy of public policy accomplishments."

Bolt, a native of Australia who became a naturalized citizen of the United States, was unique in straddling the boundary between seismology and engineering. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1978, joined the UC Berkeley Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 1988, and was a key liaison to engineers desperately seeking information about ground motion so that they could design buildings to withstand the shaking.

"He really was the founder of the modern field of engineering seismology, which is the interface between earth science and the fields of geotechnical and structural engineering," said Gregory Fenves, UC Berkeley professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering. "He was an indefatigable advocate for communication between seismologists and engineers. He could speak to broad audiences, right at their level, including legislators and governors."

Fenves credits Bolt with being a strong advocate of installing strong-motion sensors near earthquake faults to measure the true ground movement, essential information for earthquake engineers. He also was one of the first to recognize the importance of near-fault effects of quakes, which can be much different from the effect only a mile away.

UC Berkeley colleague Douglas Dreger, associate professor of earth and planetary science, noted that Bolt coined the term "fling" for the brief period when a fault slips during an earthquake.

"He recognized early on that this rapid elastic rebound could have severe consequences for structures, and this importance was borne out in strong ground motion recordings from recent quakes, such as the Denali earthquake in Alaska and the Chi-Chi event in Taiwan," Dreger said.

Bolt contributed to many other areas of seismology through analysis of seismic wave recordings.

"In the 1960s and '70s he made significant contributions to our understanding of the deep Earth - in particular, the Earth's inner core," said Barbara Romanowicz, UC Berkeley professor of earth and planetary science who succeeded Bolt in 1991 as director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory.

She also noted his contributions to the laboratory, including making it the first institution to install broadband seismometers that, unlike previous seismometers, can measure earthquake waves across a broad band of frequencies. Bolt also was among the first to switch from paper readouts to digital recordings on tape, which led to today's use of computers to record and analyze seismic data.

"As a result, UC Berkeley is still a leader in digital research, and Professor Bolt started us off," Dreger said.

Bolt also was president from 1982 to 1985 of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. He was a member of the board of trustees of the academy for 11 years, from 1981-92, and again joined the board in 1999.

"Bruce has been one of the staunchest supporters of research programs at the academy, and has been an ardent spokesperson for the system of scientific research, exhibits and education," said Terrence Gosliner, provost of the academy. "In the three decades he has been associated with the academy, he really pushed to make people think creatively. And when he got enthusiastic about something, he would always follow through."

Not surprisingly, Bolt pushed for an exhibit about earthquake preparedness and helped design the museum's first such exhibit, which debuted in the early 1980s. Bolt even narrated a demonstration of the severe shaking that took place during San Francisco's 1906 earthquake. In the 15-20 years that the exhibit was up, Gosliner recalled walking by many, many times and hearing Bolt intone, "We must be prepared, it will happen again."

Aside from his university responsibilities, Bolt "consulted on every major seismic project in the state, including dams, bridges and airports," said his former student, Norm Abrahamson, an engineering seismologist for Pacific Gas & Electric. Some of this consulting was for PG&E, including for the company's Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, although he consulted on the Alaska oil pipeline, the Aswan dam in Egypt and many other international projects. In recent years, he mostly reviewed projects, Abrahamson said, including what may have been his last - an assessment of the BART tube running under San Francisco Bay.

"He was probably the first seismologist to really go over and talk to the engineers - that was his strength," Abrahamson said.

Bolt was born in the small town of Largs in New South Wales, Australia, on Feb. 15, 1930, and earned all his degrees - a B.Sc. in 1952, a M.Sc. in 1955, a Ph.D. in applied mathematics in 1959 and a D.Sc. in 1972 - from the University of Sydney. He lectured there in applied mathematics from 1954 until 1962, and developed in interest in mathematical modeling of the Earth's interior.

Following a Fulbright post-doctoral fellowship at the Lamont Geological Observatory in New York, he visited the department of Geodesy and Geophysics at Cambridge University, England, where he met professors Perry Byerly and John Verhoogen of UC Berkeley. They were impressed and invited him to come to UC Berkeley, where in 1963 he succeeded Byerly as director of the Berkeley Seismographic Stations, now the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. He remained director until 1989 and retired to emeritus status in 1993.

During his years at UC Berkeley, Bolt served the campus in many capacities, including as a member of the Seismic Review Committee from 1988 to 1991 to assess the earthquake safety of campus buildings and design a plan to improve them.

Bolt also was president of the Academic Senate in the 1992-93 school year and retired only last year after 10 years as president of the Faculty Club. He could be found dining at the club many a lunchtime, said Fenves, recalling that eating with him could be difficult because of all the people stopping by to say hello. In addition, Bolt was an amateur actor and director and a member of an informal faculty and faculty spouse drama section, part of the University Section Club, that met regularly and put on plays to raise money for emergency scholarships and grants for students.

As a member of the state's Seismic Safety Commission, Bolt was instrumental in developing state legislation for seismic hazard mapping, the Southern California and Bay Area Earthquake Preparedness Projects, the California Earthquake Education Project, earthquake safety improvements for mobile homes, private schools, hospital buildings, essential services buildings, and unreinforced masonry buildings, the "California at Risk" earthquake loss reduction program, requirements for the disclosure of earthquake weaknesses to potential homebuyers, and a small building permit fee to fund the Strong Motion Instrumentation Program.

Bolt was a fellow of the American Geophysical Union and of the Geological Society of America, an associate of the Royal Astronomical Society and an overseas fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. He was president in 1974 of the Seismological Society of America and editor of its bulletin from 1965 to 1972, and president of the International Association of Seismology and Physics of the Earth's Interior from 1980 until 1983. He won the Alfred Alquist Medal of the California Earthquake Safety Foundation, the George W. Housner Medal from the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, and, upon retiring from UC Berkeley, the campus's highest honor, the Berkeley Citation. Aside from his two popular books, Bolt also wrote “Earthquakes and Geological Discovery” (1993) and five editions of “Earthquakes” (fifth edition, 2003).

He also was a member of the Bohemian Club and San Francisco's University Club.

Bolt was active to the end, having returned in June from a California Academy of Sciences trip to the Galapagos Islands and a subsequent trip to a meeting in Turkey. "He was going full bore," said his daughter, Gillian Bolt Kohli. "He kept up an amazing pace because he was so much in demand."

He was scheduled to give a retrospective on the 1906 earthquake at the upcoming "100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference" to be held in San Francisco in April 2006, where he was to address seismologists, engineers, planners, policy makers and responders.

Bolt is survived by his wife, Beverley (Bentley), of Berkeley; daughters, Gillian Bolt Kohli of Wellesley, Mass., Helen Bolt Juarez of Fremont, Calif., and Margaret Barber of Rumson, N. J.; a son, Robert, of Hillsborough, Calif.; a sister, Fay Bolt, of Sydney, Australia; and 14 grandchildren.

A campus memorial service is scheduled for Friday, July 29, at 3 p.m. in the Faculty Club. In lieu of flowers, contributions in Bolt's name should be sent to the California Academy of Sciences or to the Bear Valley Tennis Club, c/o Ann Wolff, Treasurer, 151 Pepper Court, Los Altos, CA 94022.


Bruce Bolt memorial page, Berkeley Seismological Laboratory