Born October 6, 1940, in Quiping, Kwangsi province, China Dr. William H. K. (Willie) Lee, Emeritus Scientist U. S. Geological Survey, passed away late November 2022, after a long career of leadership in seismology and studies of physics of the Earth’s interior – a career marked by a strong emphasis on international cooperation and sharing of data and procedures and marked by organization of, and significant contributions to, important seismological projects.
Willie received his B.Sc. degree in Physics and Geology from the University of Alberta, Edmonton in 1962. After four years in Canada, Willie chose to continue with his graduate study in California, in order to spend time in a warm climate. In the following years, he studied at the University of California, San Diego, and University of California, Los Angeles and received his Ph.D. in Planetary and Space Physics from the latter in 1967. Early scientific contributions were about his dissertation, the thermal history of the Earth, and on heat-flow measurements and their analysis. Already in summer 1963, as a graduate student, Willie had become the first Secretary on the International Heat Flow Committee and edited the book Terrestrial Heat Flow (1965) two years later, activities which are a precursor to his extensive future involvement with international organizations.
Willie came to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in June 1967 and was soon involved with pioneering observational studies of small earthquake activity on the San Andreas Fault system in central California. Working with Jerry Eaton and others, Willie created the first large-scale, continuously-telemetered, local seismic network designed to systematically study local earthquakes, which by 1970 had over 100 stations in the San Francisco Bay Area. By the early 1980’s the network had grown, in partnership with Caltech, to span the entire San Andreas Fault system and many hundreds of field sites. Willie oversaw all aspects of the network operations in Menlo Park, from selection of field sites to the detailed standards for processing and cataloging the data. Today, he is well known for his rule of π, which states that “everything takes π longer than planned and costs π more than budgeted.” Willie used the network to conduct microearthquake studiesthroughout his pre-retirement career at the USGS: in 1981 he and colleague Sam Stewart published an influential monograph, Principles and Applications of Microearthquake Networks (Academic Press).
The studies of central California seismicity led Willie and his USGS colleague John Lahr to write a computer program, HYPO71, for the determination of earthquake hypocenters recorded by a local seismograph network. About 1000 copies of this program were requested and distributed worldwide, and the program is still in use today. Beyond HYPO71, Willie had a strong interest in seeing that software, whether his own or that of others, be made widely available, and he early recognized the importance of personal computers in enabling the dissemination of seismological software. He chaired the IASPEI Working Group on Personal Computers, established in 1988, and edited the IASPEI Software Library, which made a suite of computational tools available through the Seismological Society of America (6 volumes, 1989 – 1997).
In the mid-1970’s, Willie and co-authors published journal papers that drew attention of non-Chinese seismologists to catalogs of Chinese earthquakes that had important implications for the understanding of earthquake risk outside of China. Notably, the catalogs spanned millennia and documented the existence of sources in China that would not have been identified in catalogs spanning only a few centuries. These papers broadened the perspectives of many who were mapping seismic hazard in countries for which catalogs cover only a few centuries. Willie’s intention that data from diverse earthquake catalogs be incorporated into a comprehensive database has continued and has included work on the GEM earthquake catalog as compiled at the International Seismological Centre.
In the late 1970’s, Willie began addressing the problem of preserving seismograms from the pre-digital age, so that records of early earthquakes would be available to be reexamined in light of future seismological hypotheses, new analysis methods, and future data. A discussion between Willie and Igor Nersesov in winter 1976, an IASPEI general assembly resolution in 1977, and the establishment of a joint IASPEI/UNESCO Working Group on Historical Seismograms led to the Historical Seismogram Filming Project, in which over a half-million paper seismograms from globally significant seismographic stations were microfilmed. The project is described in a monograph by Lee, H. Meyers, and K. Shimazaki, Historical Seismograms and Earthquakes of the World (Academic Press, 1988).
Willie was a very collaborative scientist, and his strategy for acquiring collaborators was proactive. A characteristic pattern was that he recognized an important opportunity in seismology, identified expertise that is necessary to realize the opportunity, and developed a collaborative project with scientists who possess the necessary expertise. This approach yields innovative research contributions or made important data sets available to the entire seismological community, and the approach generated communities of scientists who share Willie’s interest in the underlying seismological issues. The converse also happened. Other seismologists, well aware of Willie’s visionand effectiveness, sought out Willie to help on projects that were particularly important to them.
Willie formally retired from the USGS in 1995, but he continued to make significant contributions to international seismology. A major post-retirement accomplishment was his co-editorship of the two-printed-volumes, three-CD, International Handbook of Earthquake and Engineering Seismology, published on the occasion of the IASPEI centennial year 2003. This Handbook involved participation of over 1200 scientists from more than 50 countries.
Willie was a driving force behind growing interest in rotational seismology. He organized an international conference on rotational seismology in 2005, followed by special sessions at AGU meetings in 2006 and 2008, the 2009 publication of a special issue of BSSA on “Rotational Seismology and Engineering Applications” (W. H. K. Lee, M. Celebi, M. I. Todorovska, and H. Igel, eds.), and field tests of rotational sensors in Taiwan. He also co-edited a special journal issue on heterogeneities in the Earth’s lithosphere.
He maintained his efforts to ensure preservation of historical seismograms, with a focus now on digitizing data that are currently preserved on microfilm. To this end, he had organized the SeismoArchives project at Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) as a joint project between IRIS, IASPEI, and the USGS. He was concerned that a significant fraction of the world’s record of interpreted earthquake data is in danger of being lost, and he advocated, in part by the example of his own efforts, for the scanning and cataloging of seismographic-station bulletins for use by future generations of seismologists.
Beside his employment as Research Geophysicist (1967 – 1995) and then from 1995 on as Scientist Emeritus at the U. S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, CA, Willie also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles), a consulting professor at the Stanford University, and a UNESCO lecturer at the Int. Inst. Seismology and Earthquake Engineering, Japan.
In recognition of his work IASPEI awarded him the 2015 IASPEI Medal. Because of medical reasons, Willie could not come to Prague, but on 15 July 2015, the USGS celebrated the laureate Willie H.K. Lee with a small seminar and reception at Menlo Park, California.
Johannes Schweitzer (mostly merged from the Laudation and Acceptance Speeches when Willie Lee received the IASPEI Medal)
Personal rememberings of Willie:
I first met Willie when he cajoled me into using ray tracing software to locate earthquakes along the San Andreas with a 2D model and to publish a paper about our results. That began a working relationship and friendship with Willie for many years thereafter. It is not surprising that anyone who knew Willie and the enthusiasm he had for his projects dejour could not help becoming involved in them. As former Chairman of IASPEI’s Commission on Practice and later as Secretary General, many times it was left up to me to help implement many of those projects. I did so willingly because they were all worthy endeavors that among other attributes significantly advanced how we distribute, routinely process, and archive seismological data. Over the years countless researchers used these tools that Willie developed and distributed, particularly in developing countries. It is a legacy for Willie to be proud of and I could not be happier to see him awarded the IASPEI Medal for his contributions to our field.
Bob Engdahl, USA
I enjoyed working with Willie very much, although he and I worked on very different kinds of seismology. Willie worked on the USGS high-resolution modern data, and I worked on low-resolution old seismograms. Willie was talking about 10 ms and 100m accuracy in timing and spatial resolution, and I had to deal with minutes and 50 km resolution studying historical earthquakes. Also, waves with 20 s period are very long period for Willie, but very short period for me. Thus, we had some communication problems from time to time, but we were both happy at the end in our studies of the 1907 Sumatra earthquake, and the 1909 Taiwan earthquake. Both events were anyway well “resolved” by our own measures. These studies would not have been completed without Willie’s meticulous organization skills, and knowledge about old station bulletins and seismograms.
Hiroo Kanamori, USA
Another "retirement project" of Willie was taking part in the preparation of the first version of the ISC-GEM Global Instrumental Earthquake Catalogue that was requested in 2010 by the GEM Foundation and aimed at studies of global and regional seismic hazard and risk. Willie provided scientific input along with that of Peter Bormann, Bob Engdahl, Antonio Villaseñor and Graziano Ferrari. Willie contributed a considerable amount of historical data that he had collected over the years in his famous "private garage". Further to that, Willie compiled a large number of direct determinations of MW for earthquakes in the early instrumental period from scientific literature (mostly in the US) that were used in the early versions of the catalogue.
Dmitry Storchak, UK