International Association of Seismology
and Physics of the Earth's Interior

Alberto Giesecke Matto (1918 - 2016)

Alberto Giesecke Matto, Peruvian geophysicist and one of the most outstanding specialists in seismology and disaster mitigation in South America passed away on August 20, 2016, at the age of 98. He was the first director and president of the Geophysical Institute of Peru (1947 – 1982); director of the Regional Center of Seismology for South America – CERESIS (1968-2005); president of the Seismic Risk Advisory Committee of UNESCO and UNDRO; member of the Ad Hoc Group and the Scientific Committee of the International Decade of the United Nations for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR); vice-president of the Pan American Institute of Geography and History (PAIGH) and president of its Geophysical Commission and editor on the PAIGH Geophysical Journal. He was also a fellow of the Third World Academy of Sciences, TWAS.

He was born in Cusco on February 28, 1918. With an American father and a mother from Cusco, he grew up trilingual - learned Quechua and Spanish in his early years, and then English in elementary school. His father, Dr. Albert Giesecke, then Rector of San Antonio Abad del Cusco National University and Director General of Education of Peru, considered important that Alberto Jr. pursued high school and university studies in the United States. So, Alberto Jr. traveled by ship, alone, before turning twelve years old. He completed elementary school and high school in the small rural town of Enon Valley, Philadelphia, and later studied electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), the oldest and more prestigious engineering university in the United States.

He returned to Peru at the age of 19 because he wanted to know and work in his country, taking a job as an electrical engineer at Westinghouse Co., which took him to know the mines throughout Peru. Two years later he joined the Scientific Expedition to Hispano-America financed by the Swedish Axel Wenner Gren to study the native tribes in the region of Madre de Dios and the Amazon, and to explore roads and villages around Macchu Picchu.

Giesecke had his first contact with a natural disaster during his work for the construction of a hydroelectric plant in the Pato Canyon in the Callejón de Huaylas, together with the Canadian geologist Dr. Luke Lowther. They were inside the canyon when on December 13, 1941, a glacier detached from the Cordillera Blanca overflooding Acosha and Cojup lagoons. More than 10 million m3 of mud wiped out part of Huaraz city causing the death of 5,000 people. Both scientists saved their lives climbing a rock more than 20 meters.

Alberto Giesecke’s bond with Geophysics begins on the Magnetic Observatory in Huancayo, built by the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of Carnegie Institution, Washington. The observatory had begun in 1922 and became one of the most important observatories in the world because of its location near the magnetic equator, the accuracy, reliability and continuity of its data, and the diversity of studies which included: chromospheric activity of the sun, ionospheric physics, atmospheric electricity, cosmic radiation, meteorological variations, seismicity, and telluric currents. The aim of these studies was to know the origin and nature of the Earth’s magnetic field. From the moment he arrived at Huancayo on January 1942, Giesecke stopped being an “electrical engineer” and considered himself a geophysicist, starting his career in “geomagnetism” with the Carnegie Institution. His labor relationship with Carnegie lasted six years, until the observatory was transferred to the government of Peru in January 1948.

In 1966, Alberto Giesecke contributed to the creation of the Regional Center of Seismology for South America (CERESIS), which he directed for almost 40 years (1968-2005). He delivered in CERESIS his best efforts to promote integration among the regional researchers and also promoted projects towards the identification of volcano-tectonic hazards. At the same time, he fostered the development of Seismology in countries like Brazil as well as the development of an international cooperation spirit between scientists and engineers from all countries. He also improved conditions for American and European seismology groups to carry out important research projects in the Andean region.

Working to mitigate the effects of earthquakes in the region, Giesecke created consciousness of the vulnerability in front of natural disasters and the need to reduce their effects. The phrase that he created and became a paradigm is “we must live in pacific coexistence with earthquakes”.

The vast trajectory and productive labor of Alberto Giesecke reveals a personality with high human and scientific qualities. He had a great will of service, with a solid and open management during more than six decades, and became a milestone in our community. For all this we recognize Alberto Giesecke Matto as the great Ambassador of Earth Sciences in Latin America.

Leandro Rodríguez Director of CERESIS