Demian Saffer to Give AGU’s 2022 Francis Birch Lecture

Demian Saffer Cork
Demian Saffer, recipient of AGU’s 2022 Francis Birch Lectureship, during IODP Expedition 375 in New Zealand, 2018.

Demian Saffer is to receive the American Geophysical Union’s Francis Birch Lecture, an award that recognizes significant contributions to the study of the Earth’s interior and is among the highest honors given to scientists within the field of tectonophysics.

According to AGU, the award, which is named after renowned American geophysicist Francis Birch, is “bestowed upon individuals for meritorious work or service toward the advancement and promotion of discovery and solution science.”

Saffer is a professor at The University of Texas at Austin Department of Geological Sciences, director of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics and co-principal investigator at UT GeoMechanics & GeoFluids, a research lab. His work and that of his research group focuses on the mechanics of earthquake fault zones, which they study through a combination of field observations, laboratory experiments, and computer modeling. He has also led five major scientific ocean drilling expeditions to investigate large earthquake faults at the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, like the one that caused the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan.

Saffer said that the Francis Birch Lecture was special because it was a measure of recognition from the experts of his own community.

“It’s really rewarding to earn that respect from your peers, people who know in detail what you do and everything about your work,” he said.

Saffer is known for discoveries about the mechanics of tectonic faults and their earthquakes, and for the role of fluids in their behavior. His earliest achievements include experiments on clay minerals, which he used to dispel a long-held assumption that they allowed faults to slip and cause earthquakes when transformed by heat and pressure.

More recently, he co-led the deepest ever scientific drilling at a major earthquake fault. The findings about Japan’s Nankai Trough have revised scientists’ understanding of how strain builds between tectonic plates and could have implications for earthquake prone regions like Cascadia in the US Pacific Northwest. He also played an instrumental part in discovering previously unknown shallow slow-motion earthquakes offshore of Japan.

This year’s Francis Birch Lecture is the second in recent years to be awarded to a professor at UT Austin after Claudio Faccenna, a former professor in the department, received it in 2019.

“The people who have given this lecture in the past are really a who’s who in the world of tectonics in solid earth geophysics,” Saffer said. “It’s humbling and also exciting, and I think the best way I can honor them and this award is to deliver a first-rate lecture that measures up to Birch’s legacy.”

The Francis Birch Lecture is one of 30 named lectureships known collectively as the Bowie Lectures, in honor of AGU’s first president, William Bowie.

Joining Saffer from UT Austin this year as a Bowie Lecturer is Bridget Scanlon, a senior research scientist at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, who was awarded the geodesy section’s William Bowie Lecture.

The awardees will present their lectures in December 2022 at AGU’s Fall Meeting, the world’s largest gathering of Earth scientists. Saffer plans to present his group’s work on fault mechanics and demonstrate the creative ways in which their lab experiments, field work and computer modeling are being used to answer questions about earthquakes.

AGU is a nonprofit organization that supports enthusiasts and experts worldwide in Earth and space sciences. UTIG, the Department of Geological Sciences, and the Bureau of Economic Geology are units of UT Austin Jackson School of Geosciences.