SDSU geologist Philip Kern knows San Diego's faults

Intensity-seven shaking in San Diego in 1800, 1862, and 1892

Philip Kern
  • Philip Kern
  • Image by Paul Stachelek

Geology tools. “Fossils are pretty things." Kern stirs the collection of inch-high, pale pink cones with his index finger. “Aren’t those wonderful?”

Geology tools. “Fossils are pretty things." Kern stirs the collection of inch-high, pale pink cones with his index finger. “Aren’t those wonderful?”

"I’m very pessimistic. It’s all going downhill.” As he says this, Philip Kern is in his office behind a classroom in the Chemistry-Geology Building at San Diego State University. His tone is not angry or bitter but matter-of-fact. “The human race is a pack of fools. Sheep.”

The professor is not a tall man, but leaning back in his chair, feet propped on a table, he spans most of the room’s width. His features are delicate, the skin pale but touched with sun. As chairman of SDSU’s geology department, Kern is more administrator now than researcher or teacher. He looks the role, in glasses and a tweedy brown suit. He usually dresses more casually, but this morning he gave a lecture to a service organization. Earthquake preparedness was the topic. “People here need to know about earthquakes,” Kern says. “Because there’s going to be one. And they’re not ready.”

In the last month — April, California's Earthquake Awareness Month — Kern has given many such lectures. He recently appeared on Channel 8’s Sun Up San Diego program with an elaborate, three-dimensional geographic model of San Diego County, of which he is custodian. “I sort of talked my way onto the show,” Kern reveals, with what turned out to be typical self-effacement. “I told them about the great model; I told them it would be very visual.” The six-foot-long, Plexiglas-enclosed relief map is strikingly detailed and takes up a substantial portion of his office. One of the attractions of geology as a profession, Kern explains, is “the geometry of it. The maps and the cross sections. Visualizing things in three dimensions.” This model Kern admires will be the focal point of the SDSU geology department’s booth at this year’s Del Mar Fair.

In addition to being chairman of an Earthquake Awareness Month organizing committee (“I was chosen because I wasn’t at the meeting where they chose the chairman,” he says), Kern is a member of the San Diego County Earthquake Preparedness Committee, for whom he authored a report last year. The work is a compilation of “geological information bearing on earthquake hazards in San Diego County” garnered from Kern’s own research on the Rose Canyon fault zone (“a study that remains largely unpublished,” Kern states in his preface) and the work of SDSU geologist Tom Rockwell, among other authorities.

This is the third year California has had an Earthquake Awareness Month. “For years before that,” Kern says, “we had an Earthquake Awareness Week." He does not know who upgraded us or why, but he isn’t suspicious. Kern is not big on conspiracy theories, despite his unflattering assessment of the human race. He’s no activist; that role, he says, is too depressing. “But I suppose now, with this earthquake-awareness business. I’m sort of one.”

A long white table lines one wall of Kern’s office, bearing a Mac Plus, stacks of papers, books. There are bright-hued geological maps on cork boards, the three-dimensional model, a filing cabinet, wide wooden drawers for maps and specimens. Against the far wall, perhaps 15 feet away, there are bookshelves dripping heaps of papers and cardboard boxes labeled “Carmel Valley’’ and “More Carmel Valley.” The boxes contain fossils from “a little fossil assemblage” on Carmel Valley Road that he once researched.

Kern describes himself as “your typical paleontologist-geologist.” He entered the field “kind of by accident,” choosing the subject by default: the Army lost an exam he took for entrance to its Harvey Language School and had, in fact, no record of his ever having been to the examination. When he went to investigate UCLA’s meteorology department, “all the academic advisors were, well, out to lunch” Finally electing a major in geology, he specialized in paleontology (fossil studies) because “alive things are more interesting than dead things.” Receiving his doctorate in geology from UCLA in 1968, the professor moved immediately to an opportune vacancy on SDSU’s faculty.

In the late ’70s, Kern was sidetracked into the study of earthquake faults while working with newly discovered fossil beds off Point Loma. The fossils were on various marine terraces, which Kern began mapping. “I realized that the terraces were cut by some faults and not by others,” he says. “This provided a key to the age and history of the faulting.” Intrigued, he began extensive mapping of the area and has now charted marine terraces from Point Loma to Camp Pendleton.

In 1983 and again in 1986, Kern self-published the small pamphlet “Earthquakes and Faults in San Diego,” a compilation of most of what is known on the subject. Fault maps, tables of quakes with local epicenters and estimated intensities, even maps to local fault sites are included. In addition to Kern’s own work, the book compiles data from scientific papers and research by his colleagues at SDSU and elsewhere. The book is geared towards the layman, whom Kern urges to pack a lunch and grab the kids for a day of fault-watching.

Some might find this idea rather odd — just the sort of activity an academic would suggest. But there is an aesthetic pleasure in geology, Kern takes great pains to point out. “Fossils are pretty things," he says. “They’re fun to work with.” Unsatisfied with his assessment, he opens a large specimen drawer and removes a small box. “These are volcano limpets.” Kern stirs the collection of inch-high, pale pink cones with his index finger. “Aren’t those wonderful?”

He shuffles the drawer’s ancient contents again and comes up with a rough rectangle of grey shale on which a raised line makes a snake’s curves. A Cretaceous fossil, about 80 million years old. “It’s a burrow!" he announces. “Some kind of burrowing shrimp-like thing made it.”

As he displayed his wares, the professor explained that one major purpose of studying fossils is to date the surrounding rocks. “They learned back in just the early 1800s that as you look through the layers of rocks in the Earth’s crust, the fossils change, reflecting the fact that evolution has occurred”; he makes a blossoming gesture with his hands. “For rocks of any given age. there is a set of fossils that are characteristic of that time.” Before this discovery, Kern continues, there was no way of dating rocks. “You could look at rocks in a given place and there'd be layers, and you knew that the ones on the bottom were older, but there was no way of comparing these layered rocks here in Southern California with layered rocks north of Los Angeles — or in Nevada or Connecticut or Antarctica! Within a decade, everyone was out collecting fossils, and the whole geologic timescale was put together.”

“This is my pride and joy,” Kern says. His voice is low and rapid with emotion. He picks up a vaguely triangular hardness of white and shiny brown. A shark’s tooth. He found it while doing field work for his dissertation. Four or five million years old. “The biggest ones are from the Miocene [epoch], about six inches long,” he says, stroking the tooth. "The corresponding sharks were about 60 feet long.”

Next, Kern opens a drawer of geological maps. “They’re beautiful!” he says, unrolling one. The familiar shape of California unfurls in intense violet, sapphire, salmon, emerald. “They’re wonderful things. Wonderful. And the point is, all of that —“ he points to the border between two colors somewhere in the Sierra Nevada range, “is based on people walking around out there and sticking their noses under rocks. Every little spot on here has had at least one geologist on it.”

Kern does not look the type to explore rocks on cliffsides. He does not look like a “rough-and-tumble” type — his description of a geologist. He does not look as if he enjoys “going out to the desert and drinking beer.” The thrill of danger, Kern says, is as much one of geology’s attractions as the detective work. “A geologist has to go everywhere.... If you have to go up to Alaska, you have to be out there where the bears are. Geologists get eaten by bears, periodically.”

“There are some gruesome stories...He pauses expectantly. “The U.S. Geological Survey will periodically just drop people off in the middle of nowhere. In fact, there was a girl they took into Alaska by helicopter. They dropped her off, and as they were leaving, they saw a brown bear lumbering along over the hill...” It ate her hands off.

“Geology combines a number of things that really appeal to certain kinds of people. The field emphasis is one. Being outdoors.” Kern pauses to run a hand through his thinning brown hair. “If you want to be outdoors, geology is a good place to be. You don’t have to emphasize outdoor; in fact, more and more there’s lab sorts of things to do. A lot of black-box work —”

Black box?

“Yeah, using instruments instead of going out banging on rocks.”

There is a knock at the door. A tall, fair man, Don Ptacek, chats for a moment. He’s with the department, and he matches Kern’s description of the typical geologist, with his green plaid shirt and jeans. Ptacek’s eyes dart around, his smile fluctuates but never leaves, as if the man were constantly amused. He picks up a small tape recorder and fiddles with it while he discusses a business matter with Kern. Suddenly bringing the recorder to his mouth, he tersely says “shit” and whisks the recorder back to the table. Geologist humor that reflects Kern’s “rough-and-tumble" description.

With a straight face, Ptacek likens a geologist's dedication to a priest's. “Except geologists are completely — from the moment they are born, everything in their lives is tied up with the Earth. They are earthy. It’s in the deepest part of their souls.” He stops, but no hint of sarcasm is revealed. Ptacek is serious. Kern, eyes on Ptacek, nods soberly in agreement.

As “earthy” and as informed about San Diego’s geological uncertainties as Kern is, he admits that he’s not well prepared for a shaker. After 18 years in San Diego, he has only recently purchased earthquake insurance. He says that a bookcase at the head of his bed has an unopened package of brackets sitting on one of its shelves. He bought the brackets three years ago, intending to secure the bookcase to the wall. But Kern is nonchalant about the hazard this would pose in a quake. “So I’ll get some bruises, maybe get an eye put out. My favorite books’ll get messed up. But I’m probably not gonna die.”

It is inevitable that earthquakes will occur here. When and how strong they might be is the subject of continual research and debate. “Based on what we know of the earthquake history and character of the faults here, most geologists say a magnitude seven is a long shot,” Kern says. "A lot of people will bandy the number seven about; but if you really pin it down. I'd say we're almost guaranteed to get a six sooner or later.”

The debate over how active the Rose Canyon and other local faults are or will be has pitted geologists like Kern against developers and the consultants those developers hire. The network of faults underlying urban areas — Florida Canyon, Texas Street, 40th Street, and Mission Valley, for example — aren’t even officially recognized by the City of San Diego. But the entire area is located in the unsettled “border zone” between two plates of the Earth’s crust, the Pacific and the Continental.

The major seismic threats to San Diego, Kern conjectures, are the Coronado Banks fault zone, which runs north and south a few miles off shore; the well-known Rose Canyon fault, in the Morena area of the city and slicing into the ocean at La Jolla Shores, which may be connected to the Inglewood fault a few miles out at sea; and the Elsinore fault, running north and south through the Dulzura area of East County and curving oceanward in Los Angeles.

“You don’t want to worry about earthquake magnitudes, you want to worry about intensities,” says Kern. Earthquake intensity is measured on the Mercalli Scale, which assigns a quake a Roman numeral, from I through XII. based on the effect of the quake in a given location. An intensity VII quake, for example, is one in which everyone runs outside, people in moving vehicles feel the temblor, and chimneys are broken. “You’ll get the same shaking here whether it’s a six and a half on the Rose Canyon or a seven on the Elsinore or a seven on the offshore faults. Or if the San Jacinto managed to get off an eight — it’s never done that, but if it could...”

Kern checks the excitement rising in his voice by returning to facts. "What we know from history is that there was intensity-seven shaking in San Diego in 1800, 1862, and 1892. If there’s intensity-seven shaking tomorrow, it’s gonna break thousands of windows — maybe tens of thousands of windows. Windows are going to be breaking everywhere ... all those nice, little old brick buildings downtown, with the parapets hanging over the street —” he shakes his head to indicate their fate. “And people don’t know that!”

This month, Kern has published an updated and expanded version of his book. “In a way, it’s a wasted effort ” he says. “Most people still won’t pay any attention. I think you can generate awareness in maybe ten percent of the people.”

Kern says he enjoyed writing “Earthquakes and Faults in San Diego.” “I’d love to be a novelist,” he says, “but I have no imagination.” Kern authored a series of articles on geology for the San Diego Tribune a few years ago and has, of course, published several scientific papers. Un-enthusiastically, he says he might organize his Rose Canyon research for scientific publication while on sabbatical next year.

Rifling through the mess on a shelf, Kern eventually produces a copy of “Trails from the Vienna Woods: paleoenvironments and trace fossils of Cretaceous to Eocene flysch.” “This is my pride. My favorite paper.” It was based on a year’s work in abandoned Viennese rock quarries (near a sort of wine-tasting garden, he mentions). “When I conceived of that title, I knew it was a classic. A lot of people appreciated it,” he laughs.

The professor reddens upon mention of the slim library book lying squared off to his work table’s edge, the screenplay of My Dinner With Andre. Kern saw the movie on television. (His wife, he says, fell asleep.) He “connected” with the film. "It seems to embody my very philosophy.... The whole business about business and government, and military. He talks about, what if it’s really all controlled and programmed and the military-industrial complex is just doing all this and we’re just pawns!” His tone is light and intense, rather like André Gregory’s voice in the film. “Even if they’re not doing it consciously, people play along with it. They buy all the products, all the stupid things we throw away.” Intercepting a questioning look, he adds: “That’s really the way it is.”

Ultimately, Kern’s desire to educate the public on earthquake hazards is only part of his motivation. The cracks in layers of rock and the ancient footprints turned to stone that he has studied for 20-odd years hold a fascination for him that can’t be attributed to their scientific significance alone. He can’t explain that fascination. “It’s because it’s part of the whole thing, the big picture. It’s really our own context in fact,” Kern manages.

He hesitates, then continues. “That’s the real tragedy of the human species. As time goes on, people as a whole are less and less conscious of the fact that we’re biological creatures. We’re part of this system. That’s what’s getting us into a lot of trouble.”

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