Keith Koper on the news describing the science of earthquakes

Seismology in the time of COVID

Keith Koper, PhD 1998, keeps busy as a professor of geology at the University of Utah as well as Utah's primary state seismologist.


After graduating from WashU, Keith Koper, PhD 1998, spent a few years at the University of Arizona before returning to St. Louis to accept a professorship at Saint Louis University. Despite his deep affection for the St. Louis community, the lure of the West was irresistible, leading Koper to move to the University of Utah in 2010. Since then, he’s been busy as both a professor of geology and geophysics and as director of seismograph stations, serving as the primary state seismologist for Utah.

“It was a new challenge, being director of the scientific unit and still being able to teach, do my own research, and mentor students,” said Koper. He also serves on the U.S. Air Force Seismic Review Panel and the Utah Seismic Safety Commission.

Like so many people, Koper and his team have been working from home since mid-March 2020. Though his day-to-day may look a bit different, seismology as a field translates reasonably well to remote work. For starters, seismic monitoring technology already works remotely, since it must cover large, often sparsely populated areas.

“I have a great staff, and, thanks to technology like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and good old-fashioned texting, I actually think I know more now about what’s going on with everyone than I did before the pandemic,” Koper said. “In the seismic network, we have seismometers all throughout the state of Utah and in Yellowstone, so I have engineers, technicians, and analysts traveling all over to take care of different issues. On the research side, we’re trying to find new methods of detecting, locating, and characterizing earthquakes.”

Koper’s work extends far beyond his own campus. He serves on steering committees for the U.S. Air Force and several national labs, where he uses his expertise in forensic seismology for nuclear weapons monitoring and arms control under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

In his role as director of Utah’s seismic observatory, Koper also works with the U.S. Geological Survey as part of their advanced national seismic system. Koper and his team monitor earthquakes and use their data to create hazard maps that forecast which areas might be more dangerous or prone to bigger earthquakes in the future. Koper is quick to note that this isn’t predicting earthquakes. Rather, long-term forecasting allows seismologists to help reduce earthquake risk by advising government officials and educating the public.

“Public outreach is an important part of my role as the main state seismologist for Utah,” Koper said. “We have a speaker series and other outreach for different groups focusing on safety and preparedness. Recently, I’ve been able to add a communications specialist to my team, and we’ve really expanded our social media presence.”

That virtual media presence has been critical during the pandemic. On their second full day of remote work in mid-March, Koper and his team found themselves racing to respond to a 5.7 magnitude earthquake that shook Salt Lake City.

“This is the biggest event in our network’s history,” Koper said. “Salt Lake City is the most populated region in Utah, so hundreds of thousands of people felt the earthquake. We had done practice drills for this type of event over the years, and we were ready to put out extra seismometers and work with the media to keep the public informed.”

Even with the challenges of juggling press conferences and managing his team’s response – all virtually – Koper and other officials successfully used video messaging and other communications tools to keep the public calm and informed. Despite $150 million in damages, the earthquake didn’t lead to any serious injuries. It’s certainly lucky, as Koper notes, but the good outcome also speaks to the efficacy of Koper’s efforts in seismic hazard preparedness.