GEM Impact Story Series
Childhood love for nature and a fateful journey along the San Andreas Fault
Some say my destiny as an earthquake scientist was formed as a result of being driven 50 km along the San Andreas Fault in the early morning before my birth in San Francisco. In any case, as a child, I was in love with nature, which was enhanced by camping and hiking in the hills and mountains of California. My parents inspired me, especially my mom, who became an accomplished artist/painter after raising 4 children and was a huge supporter of everything I ever did.
Finding Passion: Geology Course Sparks Career Path
I was pretty good at math in school, so some combination of math and science seemed like a logical career path. Out of curiosity, I took a geology course in my second year at university, and that was it; I found my passion! I ended up with a combined degree in math and earth science, and went on to study geophysics in graduate school.
Chasing Earthquakes in South America
As a graduate student and post-doctoral researcher, I had many opportunities to satisfy my curiosities about the inner workings of the Earth as well as to explore remote areas of the planet. I travelled extensively to South America, particularly Colombia and Peru, where I chased earthquakes with portable seismographs from the Andes to the Amazon jungle, and contributed to our understanding of earthquakes and the behavior of subducting plates beneath the continent.
Applying Science to Real-World Problems
My interest shifted to the application of science to real-world problems when I began studying earthquakes as a hazard in the context of the nuclear power industry and later in the new field of catastrophe risk modelling in the US in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Leading the Development of Risk Research Group in Australia
We started with earthquakes and released the first open earthquake risk modelling code (EQRM) in 2004. Over the next decade or so, we worked with local governments in Australia and, in the aftermath of terrorist bombings, and disasters from tsunamis, tropical cyclones, volcanic eruptions, bushfires, and floods in Australia and surrounding regions, we expanded our risk modelling capabilities and extended our assistance to help the governments of Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and several other South Pacific islands.
A New Chapter in Australia
In 2000, my wife Jill, our children, Bennet and Margot, and I left the US bound for Australia. I accepted a job with the Australian government to lead the development of a risk research group, which was created with the ambition to do multi-hazard risk assessments for urban centers in Australia.
GEM: Uniting the World in Global Seismic Understanding
When I first heard about the GEM concept in about 2006, I immediately recognized it as a great opportunity to bring the work we were doing regionally to a global scale. Geoscience Australia hosted the GEM kick-off meeting in Canberra, Australia in March 2009 and the following year we succeeded in securing the sponsorship of the Australian Government to join GEM as a public Governor, and I happily began to represent Australia on the Governing Board.
Leading the Charge: From Governing Board to Secretary General
I later served as Vice Chair and Chair of the Governing Board, and in 2015, I had the opportunity to apply for the role of Secretary General. For me, this represented the opportunity to combine my interests in understanding earthquake risks together with the application to public and private sectors, and to do it globally. It brought most of what I had been working on over the previous 40 years together into one job!
Mapping Earth's Perils: Unveiling Global Earthquake Risks
Now, 7-1/2 years later, what have we done? We released the first global earthquake hazard and risk maps in 2018 and just completed the second major release in June 2023. The new maps have higher resolution and include the measurement of the risk to buildings, but also human mortality and displaced persons.
Unwavering Partnership: Nurturing My Career and Mission with Jill
I especially look forward to having more time with my wife Jill, who has been with me every step of the way since we met in 1985, and has encouraged me to pursue my career/mission. Jill has been a dear friend to GEM staff, especially those that have lived with us at CAR College in Pavia over the years, including surviving the pandemic together.
Embracing the Next Chapter: Time with Family, Friends and Future Plans
I look forward to spending more time with our grown children in Australia, Bennett (29) and Margot (26), who have become productive professionals in wind engineering and environmental science, respectively. And then there are my siblings and their families in the U.S, dear friends scattered across the globe, and a few places on the map that we would dearly love to visit!
Enhancing Resilience and Global Reach: GEM's Growth and Strategic Initiatives
Partly as a result of Covid, GEM expanded its training and capacity development in the use of OpenQuake worldwide through online seminars/workshops, and improved communications outreach and product dissemination.
GEM also expanded sponsorships, particularly with the private sector, which contributed substantially to GEM’s overall financial sustainability. GEM matured as an organisation, deepening its collaborations with many project and product partners, including UN agencies, development banks, and the insurance industry.
Critical to GEM’s long-term sustainability and mission, GEM developed a Product Development policy and issued a Strategic Plan and Roadmap to 2030, which includes a broadening of its work to contribute to multi-hazard risk assessments and resilience planning over the remainder of the decade.
A Privileged Journey: Commitment to GEM's Principles and Continued Service
"It is impossible for me to describe how privileged I feel to have been able to be a part of the GEM journey. So much work by so many people and so much support from so many institutions that share the GEM principles of collaboration, openness, credibility, and public good have made all this possible. I look forward to continuing to serve the GEM mission in an advisory capacity and to helping other initiatives in disaster risk management and climate change adaptation."
- John F. Schneider