Geology doctoral student receives top honor

6/2/2009 - By: Guia Del Prado

Rich Koehler, 38-year-old doctoral student in geology, recently received the Outstanding Student Paper Award from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Outstanding Student Presenter Award from the Seismological Society of America (SSA) for his presentations on his research in geology.

Koehler received the Outstanding Student Paper Award at an AGU international conference in December 2008 after participating in a poster session. The Outstanding Student Presenter Award was granted to him after a 15-minute oral presentation at an SSA conference in April. In addition to receiving a certificate, Koehler was also recognized in the two society’s respective journals.

“The awards were granted by a group of peers,” he said. “I felt lucky to receive them and honored, really. It’s somewhat humbling to go through all that work and then to have it recognized.”

The research Koehler presented stretches back to 2004, when he returned to academia at the University of Nevada, Reno for a doctoral degree in geology after seven years of working as a consultant in earthquake geology and getting his master’s degree in geology at Humboldt State University.

Koehler’s work focuses on mapping faults and measuring the extension rate of Nevada based on the horizontal motion of faults between the Wasatch Fault in Utah and Central Nevada Seismic Belt. Koehler also compared the results of the geological measurements and analyses he did to results that come from GPS and geodesy methods.

While Koehler measured the height of scarps, topographic changes in the earth’s surface caused by earthquakes, GPS geodesy measures horizontal deformation of the surface, by recording changes in the distance between GPS stations using satellites. The geological methods are based on long-term observations while GPS geodesy is done on a short term basis.

“Compared to the work the geodesy people are doing, which shows, about one millimeter per year of extension, the geological methods come up with a similar result,” Koehler said. “So it shows that we have an agreement between the long term and short term rates of extension.”

Koehler’s work has also been awarded and funded by the Jonathan Davis Scholarship from the Desert Research Institute.

“Ultimately my work contributes to how often earthquakes occur, where they occur, and contributes to seismic hazards analyses,” Koehler said. “Seismic hazards assessment for regional seismic hazards and sites specific seismic hazard studies for hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure.”

Koehler first got interested in earthquake studies in geology as an undergraduate at University of California, Santa Cruz during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. He was enrolled in his first geology class at the time of the earthquake.

“I was in the 1989 earthquake at its epicenter in Santa Cruz getting my undergrad,” he said. “I was sitting on my porch and was actually shaken off my porch onto the sidewalk during the earthquake. I had always been interested in rivers and mountains and how they form. However, after the earthquake, I became interested in tectonics and never looked back.”

Koehler graduated this May, but he plans to keep earthquake studies and geology in his sights. He is currently waiting for word of employment from the Alaska Geological Survey’s Neotectonic Research Program, Sacramento State University and various consulting agencies. Still, he said he hopes to ultimately end up at Humboldt State University again either in a research or teaching role.

“It seems like it’s a topic of interest and an area of active research that will likely continue,” he said.
“We’ll always have landslides, earthquakes, and floods and things like that. So natural hazards will always be an issue and I hope to be involved in studying them.”


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