2022 DistinGuished AlumnUS

February 29, 2024

Among the nation’s preeminent earthquake seismologists, Harley Benz MS’82, PhD’86, scientist emeritus at the US Geological Survey (USGS)’s Earthquake Hazards Program, first worked at the USGS in Menlo Park, California, and then, beginning in 1993, in Golden, Colorado.


With positions in the Branch of Seismology, the Branch of Earthquake and Geomagnetic Information, and the Geologic Hazards Team, he became the Technical Manager of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) which oversees and coordinates seismic network operations throughout the US. In 2022 the Department of Geology & Geophysics recognized him with the 2022 Distinguished Alumnus Award.

In 2003, Benz was appointed ANSS Megaproject Chief, overseeing the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) which is the world’s pre-eminent seismic monitoring system. Benz also played a role in the modernization of earthquake operations within the participating seismic networks, after co-authoring “An Assessment of Seismic Monitoring in the United States,” the 1999 Congressional Report that led to the formation and funding of the ANSS. The success of ANSS was due in no small part due to Benz’ ability to engender trust and respect from the regional network operators who were essential to the program’s success, according to the commendations from his colleagues.

Benz is credited with helping to modernize USGS earthquake analyses, reporting procedures and facilities, in particular revising the data processing and operations at NEIC to become less labor intensive and more automated. Under his leadership, rapid notifications, web services and data feeds became routine as ways to rapidly disseminate earthquake information to government agencies, emergency managers, the media and the general public. NEIC now processes continuous data from more than 2,200 seismic stations contributed by more than 145 seismic networks across the globe.

Benz’ use of innovative communication products, especially ArcGIS StoryMaps, demonstrate his commitment to sharing earthquake science. The use of story maps to place complex events into tectonic and seismological context so that they are understandable to a broad audience has been equally groundbreaking in classrooms and newsrooms, according to Benz’ colleagues. (The story map created for the 2023 Kahramanmaraş, Turkey, earthquake sequence is one such example.)

Along with his mentorship of dozens of graduate students, postdoctoral students and early career scientists, Benz forged a number of international partnerships during his time at USGS. He aided in the development of the Caribbean and N4 networks and expansion of the Global Seismographic Network, and expanded ties with the nuclear test ban treaty monitoring community that analyzes global seismic signals through the International Monitoring System (IMS). High-quality digital data from each of these networks is now available in real-time for NEIC, as a result of his efforts.

A native of Georgia, Benz earned his BS in geophysics from the University of Kansas and has been involved in a broad range of research and applications in earthquake seismology. This includes imaging earth structure, earthquake detection, modeling of seismic sources, and near-real-time location and moment-tensor calculation to inform earthquake disaster response. Additionally, the range of his work extends to measurement and prediction of strong ground motion; seismic discrimination between natural seismicity and nuclear explosions; understanding earthquake swarms; induced seismicity and its implications for seismic hazard; seismic network operations; and generation and management of earthquake catalogs. His expertise and knowledge in these areas have informed his continual efforts to educate college students and the general public about earthquake hazards.

In addition to educating college students—most recently as an adjunct professor at the U during the 2021-2022 academic year—Benz has also been an exceptional leader in meeting USGS’s missions to quantify seismic hazards and to inform national, state, and local governments, private industry, and the general public about such earthquake hazards and their mitigation.

The Distinguished Alumni Award is given regularly by the Department of Geology & Geophysics. This past fall David Braxton MS’97 was announced as the 2023 recipient. His profile will appear in an upcoming issue of Down to Earth.

You can read the entire Geology & Geophysics Department magazine Down to Earth where this story originally appeared here.