- © 2013 by the Seismological Society of America
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Nick Ambraseys died peacefully in his Putney home in London on 28 December 2012, a few weeks short of his 84th birthday. Born in Athens, Greece, 19 January 1929, he acquired his middle name from his father, Neocles Amvrasis, and, from his Alexandria‐born mother, Cleopatra Yambani, he learned Arabic. He was educated at the National Technical University of Athens, where he received a diploma in rural engineering in 1952. For his mandatory military service he chose the Hellenic Navy; and, in 1954 while still completing his navy duties, he was appointed to the staff of the Department of Fluid Mechanics at the National Technical University of Athens. During the time of his appointment in Athens (1954–1956), two events changed his life. The first was on 18 August 1955, when he married Xeni Stavrou, a happy event that Xeni recalls meant that Nick never learned to drive a car (she jests that in all the years she drove Nick around, he never provided her with an official chauffeur’s cap). Xeni and Nick left for London the next day. The second event occurred a year later. On 9 July 1956 a major earthquake near Amogas, roughly 80 km northwest of Santorini, generated the largest twentieth‐century tsunami in the eastern Aegean.
He became interested in the study of the 1956 earthquake and its tsunami while investigating its impact on the stability of harbor works throughout the Greek archipelago. The study challenged his analytic skills but also triggered two interests that were to dominate his subsequent career: the study of earthquakes and the study of their historical records. His 1960 article discussing the 1956 tsunami lists 46 previous tsunamis from 1400 B.C. to that date and remarks that “in none of the references is the original source of information given… and in many of the cases the dating of events is incorrect,” a problem for which the solution required him to create what has essentially become a new discipline, the establishment of a multimillennia catalog of historical earthquakes (Ambraseys, 1960). Nick was not the first to tackle the issue; there already existed the remarkable compilations of the Mallets, father and son, whose global seismicity map of 1858 (which outlined the world’s plate boundaries a century before the birth of plate tectonics) he often showed as one of the great achievements of Victorian archival investigations, but he was the first to lay down the ground rules for avoiding error, repetition, and spatial and temporal conflation.
One of his first contributions to the historical catalog was to alert the seismic community to anachronisms—that is, errors in seismic catalogs caused by the different calendars in use by the world’s civilizations. This had lured several unwary seismologists into introducing newly “discovered” historical earthquakes into catalogs that already listed the earthquake under a different date. Thus we read as a footnote in his 1962 catalog of Mediterranean tsunamis where he proposed numerous corrections to the works of Mallet, Hoff, and Perrey (Ambraseys, 1962a, p. 899):
The translators of Armenian texts have not perceived the chronological difficulties that occur in the manuscripts of Moses and Acogh’ig and have committed an anachronism of exactly 30 years.
He subsequently identified two dozen bogus earthquakes listed in twentieth‐century catalogs for which the dates were derived from an 1843 translation of a fifteenth‐century Arabic text that listed these events in the Muslim Al Hijra lunar calendar and had unwittingly rendered them as A.D. calendric dates (Ambraseys, 1962b). In these two 1962 works, he demonstrated his extraordinary talent for tracking down original sources of authentic data. These investigations in the next 50 years were to take him to the great libraries of Europe and Asia and to unexpected hunting grounds: the Baghdad library before it was ransacked; the British Consulate in Kabul, where he photographed the stronghold of Jellalabad damaged by the 1842 earthquake in the first Afghan war; village archives in remote parts of Iran; and Gutenberg and Richter’s worksheets in the Millikan Library at Caltech in Pasadena. His ability to read Greek, Latin, and Arabic texts, a half‐dozen European languages, and, to a lesser degree, Cyrillic, Farsi, and Urdu documents meant he was able to follow the original accounts of historians firsthand and to verify, correlate, and compare different accounts like few of his predecessors. For those languages of which he had no knowledge, he would sometimes sit with translators to weigh alternative renditions as they interpreted the original text. During his life he collected many hundreds of accounts of earthquakes in a dozen languages, which he stored in an office lined from ceiling to floor with shelves stuffed with books and reference materials.
His interpretations of historical records were tempered by numerous firsthand experiences of villages and towns recently damaged by earthquakes and by the responses of villagers to the rebuilding of their towns after these earthquakes. He frequently remarked there was a half‐life to the memory of an earthquake of about one and a half generations, such that grandchildren rarely benefitted from the earthquake experiences of their ancestors.
Nick frequently remarked there was a half‐life to the memory of an earthquake of about one and a half generations, such that grandchildren rarely benefitted from the earthquake experiences of their ancestors.
Another of his early contributions was to recognize that the domino‐like westward rupture of the North Anatolian fault in the twentieth century was merely the most recent of at least two previous similar sequences in the past 2000 years (Ambraseys, 1970) and that periods of seismic activity alternated over many hundreds of years between northern and southeastern Turkey (Ambraseys, 1971). He subsequently discussed evidence for similar fluctuations in long‐term seismic activity between eastern and northern Iran (Ambraseys and Melville, 1982) and long‐term fluctuations in seismic productivity on the Dead Sea fault zone (Ambraseys, 1975), the Sea of Marmara, and the Gulf of Corinth (Ambraseys, 2006, 2009), providing overwhelming evidence that local seismic processes were not stationary. In many parts of the world, this finding has dire consequences for estimating future seismic risk from statistics based on the brief post‐1900 instrumental seismic catalog alone.
The 1982 publication with Charles Melville of a 240‐page history of Persian earthquakes established a new paradigm for the methodical examination of historical earthquakes. For the first time, source materials from libraries, government archives, and local inscriptions were combined with detailed fault‐rupture mapping, engineering, statistics, and quantitative seismology. The study digs deep beneath the listing of historical records by examining the possible incompleteness wrought by the vagaries of two millennia of conquest, administrative accounting, exploration and accessibility, including the changes in reporting caused by the penetration of travelers, telegraphs, and consular espionage. The text moves on to population distributions and building styles before launching into case histories of earthquakes from the fourth century B.C. to 1978, including a detailed restatement of the seminal findings of his classic contribution to the study of the 1968 Dasht‐e‐Bayez earthquake (Ambraseys and Tchalenko, 1969; Tchalenko and Ambraseys, 1970). For the skeptical reader, the conclusions wrested for each earthquake are qualified and supplemented in 30 pages of explanatory footnotes. The work ends with lists of fault slip, rupture length, and magnitude, with quantitative assessments of magnitude scales, intensity, attenuation, and moment release. In their preface (p. x), the authors apologize that “one disadvantage of an interdisciplinary study lies in the demands it makes on its audience” but add that “the work should be of interest to the orientalist, historical geographer or sociologist, as well as to the earth scientist and engineer.”
His co‐authored books synthesize and correct former catalogs, including his own, listing both refuted entries and irrefutable facts, for without a clear statement of both, later writers might be tempted to reinsert fake quakes and inflated appraisals of real ones into our mutual seismic history. He was particularly anxious to moderate perceptions expressed by authors keen to interpret the demise of ancient societies due to earthquakes (Ambraseys, 2005, p. 563):
Careful examination of the aftermath of large, well studied earthquakes in the eastern Mediterranean regions over the last 25 centuries shows that earthquakes seem to have had little, if any, serious long‐term influence on historical developments.
With characteristic humor he cautions that the invocation of earthquakes as catalysts for, if not biblical disaster, disasters of biblical proportions, echoes the parable in which a drunkard searches under a street lamp for his house key, lost some distance away, because there is more light there.
His quest for historical documents in the early seismic observatories of Europe and elsewhere led him to deplore the abandoned status of many early seismograms, sometimes uncataloged, sometimes decaying in damp basements, or gathering grime in scattered closets guarded by curators ignorant of their scientific value. In collaboration with others, he went to considerable lengths to preserve early records for posterity and in later years worked with numerous collaborators to archive Europe’s increasing numbers of digital and analog strong‐motion records in a digitally accessible repository (Ambraseys et al., 2002, 2004).
Although almost two‐thirds of his scientific output was on historical earthquakes, his contributions as a teacher and practitioner of earthquake engineering were no less important. In 1958 following his Ph.D. at Imperial College on the seismic stability of earth‐fill dams, he was appointed to successive positions in the Department of Civil Engineering, as lecturer in 1958, reader in 1968, and as a full professor in 1974. After his retirement in 1994, he was appointed a senior research investigator, with no diminution in his research output. Almost one‐third of his 320 articles, and four of his six books, were written after his retirement.
Among his earliest few articles are several on the dynamic behavior of soils, which attracted the attention of Nate Newmark, who in 1963 offered him a visiting professorship at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Discussions there led to the formulation of Newmark’s sliding block method, which permits first‐order calculations of landslide instability (Newmark, 1965). In 1968, the first of many Ph.D. students to be awarded a doctorate by Nick’s newly formed Imperial College Engineering Seismology Section was Sarada Sarma, who further developed methods to quantify the seismic stability of slopes and dams (Ambraseys and Sarma, 1967, 1968). With Sarma, he published an article providing the physical basis for quantifying the delayed liquefaction of saturated soils following strong shaking in earthquakes, a topic he was to return to in later years (Ambraseys and Sarma, 1969; Ambraseys, 1988, 1991).
During his time at Imperial College, he led more than 30 United Nations field missions to study earthquake damage throughout the world. These studies established standard methods for postseismic investigations using a blend of rupture mapping, intensity assessments, and damage assessments. He also consulted on the design and siting of numerous large dams. The quality of his engineering and historical‐research contributions has been rewarded by many scientific honors from learned societies: the Busk Medal for Scientific Discovery from the Royal Geographical Society (1975), Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (1985), Honorary Fellowship of the Society of Earthquake Engineering and Structural Dynamics (1986), Honorary Fellowship of the International Association of Earthquake Engineering (1992), Honoris Causa from University of Athens (1993), Member of the European Academy (1997), Award of the Freedom of the City of Skopje (1998), Fellowship of the City and Guilds of London Institute for Outstanding Achievement (2000), William Smith Medal of the Geological Society of London (2002), and Harry Fielding Reid Medal of the Seismological Society of America (2006; see medal citation by Roger Bilham, 2006). He was also a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Geological Society of London, and the Royal Geographical Society, as well as the Academy of Athens, where he actively participated in sessions. He was co‐founder of the Journal of Earthquake Engineering and served as editor of numerous journals on soil mechanics and earthquake engineering. A biannual distinguished lecture award is named in his honor by the European Association for Earthquake Engineering.
His students remember him as a demanding advisor, simultaneously expecting excellence and productivity. His lectures were memorable for their striking analogies and parallels, which Nick conjured effortlessly as he explained the theme of his talk. Colleagues remember him as a kind and generous conversationalist, interested in everything, and armed with a mischievous sense of humor. For example, when asked by the eminent seismologist Jean‐Pierre Rothé, who was justly proud of French contributions to world literature, which of the many French epic novels was his favorite, Nick responded without hesitation, “Asterix.”
He disliked conferences but was always being invited to give plenary addresses. As a result he delighted in poking fun at them. At one meeting, he announced: “We are in Rome for a meeting entitled, ‘The Mitigation of Earthquake Hazard in Turkey’. The absurdity of the title of the meeting matches that of its agenda. You can mitigate risk but not hazard.” At the venue of another, he quipped, “The hotel is a five‐star concentration camp.”
He never used business cards; and, when he was given these at meetings, or by taxi drivers or tradesmen, he gave them out at random at the next meeting. One year his plumber was delighted to receive a Christmas card from a Japanese seismologist.
In his study, while stuffing tobacco into a well‐worn pipe, he would set his visitor at ease with some amusing anecdote: “Did I ever tell you the story about the tide gauge that mysteriously indicated a miniscule tidal range? The Navy had accidently installed it on a floating Normandy landing barge.”
Others recall anecdotes about him. While crossing the border from Iran to Pakistan without an appropriate visa, he convinced the border guards of his right‐to‐passage by producing on each occasion an impressive document boasting a green‐and‐gold, sun‐emblazoned shield, surmounted by rampant angels, heraldic lions, and a crown—a grocery receipt from Harrod’s of London. A story from his Illinois days tells of when snow started falling after an evening dining at the Newmarks, Nate gave him the keys to his car. Not being able to drive, and not wanting to upset his host, Nick took the keys and walked home with them. His nonexistent driving license and disinterest in politics gave him further trouble in Illinois when he was unable to identify himself to the local police who stopped him for returning home at night in violation of a curfew of which he had no knowledge. Back in London, an M.Sc. student’s grades were being reviewed by his Imperial College examiners, who were puzzled about why the young scholar had completely failed a class in linear finite elements but had an exceptionally high score in nonlinear finite elements. Nick commented, “He obviously couldn’t think straight.”
He was always generous with praise for the energy of others. Returning from a postseismic investigation, he remarked of a colleague, “I don’t know how he did it—he mapped fractures at a trot in the blazing sun all day on a predawn bowl of yogurt.” The same colleague remarked that in a large aftershock, Nick, instead of running out of the building with his companions at the breakfast table, hurriedly switched on his tape recorder to capture the sound of the building creaking and of people shrieking in alarm. Others note he was always careful with hotels in the mezzoseismal area, usually doing an engineering assessment of its structural potential before reserving a room. He was quite outspoken at meetings but in a congenial way. He once walked up to an engineering presentation of seismic risk, stabbing his finger in the middle of a low PGA contour and commenting that perhaps the speaker might wish to reconsider his perception of low risk in the region. Unrecognized by the non‐Arabic speaking presenter near his pointing finger was printed in cursive Abjad script “Djebel Zilzel”—Earthquake Mountain. Not everyone understood his sense of humor. For example, at one meeting he referred to his colleague Eric Brown, “the professional who designs structures, the shapes of which he cannot analyze, using materials the properties of which he doesn’t know, to resist earthquakes he cannot assess, but in such a way that his client is not aware of it.” But most of his colleagues knew that such utterances were tongue‐in‐cheek. On one occasion as he was about to deliver a conference talk, a member of the audience jumped out of his seat and announced earnestly to the audience, “I want to say that I disagree with everything in the next presentation.”
His lectures were memorable for their striking analogies and parallels, which Nick conjured effortlessly as he explained the theme of his talk.
Nick’s life of engineering and historical studies has left us with at least two sound bytes that will resonate for many generations:
Earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings do.
The collapse of buildings in earthquakes are not acts of God. All too often nowadays they are acts of criminal negligence.
In 1987 he wrote to me that funding for field work was dwindling in the United Kingdom and “for this reason I have started now writing up all the material that has accumulated in the past 20 years.” Twenty years, 170 articles, and six books later, he remarked to Xeni that he had sufficient materials in his home library to keep his pen busy until he was age 150. Nick’s legacy of a half‐century of publications quantifying more than 2000 years of earthquakes will endure forever. Those who knew him have lost a friend and an inspiration. The world has lost a truly great scientist.
I thank Xeni Ambraseys and Kyri Argyropoulos for their kindness in speaking with me. I am also indebted to numerous colleagues who have shared Nick’s friendship over the years: Paola Albini, Muawia Barazangi, Julian Bommer, Amr Elnashai, John Douglas, Susan Hough, James Jackson, Vassiliki Kouskouna, Mustapha Meghraoui, Roger Musson, Anastasios Sextos, and Costas Synokalis.