Faculty Spotlight: Wenyuan Fan

FSU geophysics professor Wenyuan Fan and colleagues recently discovered a geophysical phenomenon they've named "stormquakes."

Seismologist and geophysicist Wenyuan Fan is an assistant professor of geophysics in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up in China and went to Peking University for my undergraduate education. I obtained my Ph.D. from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, in Summer 2017. I was a postdoctoral scholar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution from Fall 2017 to December 2018. I joined Florida State University in January 2019.

When did you first become interested in geophysics and seismology?

I have always been interested in the physics, math and nature around us. Geophysics is the perfect combination of these things. I became particularly interested in seismology and earthquake science after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, which registered at magnitude 7.9, killed 87,000 people, injured more than 370,000 and left millions homeless. I felt strongly about seismology after seeing the damage caused by the quake.

What are your current research interests, and what makes you passionate about them?

I am an observational seismologist, and I use seismic records collected both onshore and offshore to study the Earth and seismic sources. My research interests are earthquake rupture propagation, earthquake interaction and triggering processes, and the mechanisms of abnormal slip events such as landslides and glacial quakes.

Recently, my collaborators and I discovered a new geophysical phenomenon involving the coupling of the atmosphere-ocean and solid Earth. Specifically, by analyzing 10 years of seismic data recorded at stations spanning the whole U.S. continent, we discovered that large storms such as hurricanes and nor'easters can excite transient seismic signals as large as those excited by magnitude 3.5 earthquakes. We name these seismic sources “stormquakes." These stormquakes are fundamentally different from previously reported atmosphere-ocean-solid Earth couplings that produce incoherent seismic noise. Instead, stormquakes produce coherent transcontinental Rayleigh wave packets similar to those generated by earthquakes. They are effective point sources and hence will allow future novel investigations of Earth structure.

Stormquakes migrate along the continental shelf break, tracing the leading edge of large storms. Thus, they also have potential use in oceanography/meteorology as a remote monitoring tool that is sensitive to wave activity on time scales of minutes.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?

The Earth system is a complex, coupled system that operates on many orders of temporal and spatial scales, and seismic sources are transient signals revealing the dynamics of the system. Investigating seismic sources is critical for hazard assessment and mitigation, and ground motion caused by these seismic sources can serve as the most accessible means to probe large-scale lithospheric tectonic processes.

In addition to tectonic earthquakes, a variety of seismic sources have been discovered in the past few decades, including silent slow earthquakes and various surface processes including landslides, rivers and glaciers. Understanding seismic sources not only has important societal relevance, but it pushes the intellectual boundary of understanding everything around us.

Who are your role models? Who has influenced you most in your life?

Marie Curie said, “We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for humanity.”

Professionally, I owe everything to my postdoc adviser Jeff McGuire, my Ph.D. adviser Peter Shearer, my mentors and collaborators at various institutions, and scientists and staff at Scripps and WHOI.

What brought you to Florida State University? Why do you enjoy working at FSU?

I enjoy working with Earth scientists from diverse backgrounds. Our recent discovery of stormquakes was a collaboration among seismologists, infrasound geophysicists, climate dynamists and oceanographers.

The Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science at FSU recognizes that the Earth is a complex coupled system, and promotes such multi-disciplinary collaborations. In addition, I recently started to work on surficial processes in the Gulf of Mexico, which makes FSU an ideal home institution for me.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My job is my favorite part of my job. I believe in science and I love research. Learning the unknowns and discovering the unknown unknowns is very rewarding to me.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

It can feel quite stressful when I do not meet my own expectations.

How do you like to spend your free time?

I like reading, long distance running, music, musicals, movies and red wine.

If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?

I hope they will respect the data. The data is factual; therefore, it is always right. Only interpretations based on incomplete understandings can be wrong.