Senior Research Scientist & Associate Director
Institute for Geophysics | Jackson School of Geosciences
By Gary Rasp
Reared in a family steeped in the Humanities, geophysicist Cliff Frohlich reflected early on that it might be wise for him to look elsewhere for his life calling.
As an elementary school student, Frohlich had shown a noticeable aptitude for math, and recognized he might be better suited for the world of numbers and calculations.
“Some of my most amazing mathematical accomplishments were in the fifth grade,” he recalls from his office at UT Austin’s Pickle Research Campus.
“It was about that time I decided I wanted to be the world’s greatest mathematician.”
Though he had not yet seen a mathematical proof, the 11-year-old Frohlich was able to demonstrate that, if they don’t divide out evenly, all whole fractions are infinitely repeating decimals.
When he showed his work to his teacher and asked if it was correct, she advised him to “just divide out a few more and see.”
“I realized that she was not the person to ask,” he recalls with a laugh. “She was either trying to get rid of me, which was entirely possible, or she did not understand the question.”
“Twelve years later I was in a graduate program at Cornell studying physics.”
Today, as a senior research scientist and associate director of UT’s Institute for Geophysics, Frohlich looks back on a long career studying plate tectonics. In addition to his research, he also has taught courses in the Department of Geology Sciences, and has been the principal mentor for about ten students seeking their masters or doctoral degrees.
The Institute, a research unit within the Jackson School of Geosciences, conducts expeditionary-scale geophysical research in several distinct areas: climate, energy, marine geosciences, seismology and tectonophysics, and planetary and polar geophysics. The unit is home to more than 50 research scientists and postdocs who do everything from conducting scientific ocean drilling to leading airborne radar studies of ice sheets. Researchers supplement their fieldwork with computer analysis, modeling, and lab work.
In 2002, Frohlich travelled to Antarctica aboard the Research Support Vessel Laurence M. Gould to conduct fieldwork on Smith and Low Islands. Spending weeks on the ocean in the company of Filipino and Chilean seamen, Cajun officers, and other scientists, the project gave him a unique opportunity to witness penguins up close, something he wrote about in a series of letters from the ship. His log also recounted the desolate beauty of the region:
The experience is extraordinarily visual; at almost any instant you look, there is ice, or islands, or meteorological phenomena that are stunningly beautiful. At the same time, there is almost nothing else in Antarctica; there are no trees, no insects, no (land) mammals, no stores, no shopping, no restaurants. Because there are no trees or buildings and the air is so clear, one tends to underestimate distances.
When he arrived at UT in the late 1970s, the focal point of Frohlich’s research was deep earthquakes. For years, his work had gone largely unnoticed by anyone outside the scientific community, but that all changed when Frohlich, an amiable yet unassuming sort, found himself at the center of a full-blown controversy.
In the 1980s, purely by happenstance, he had inherited a graduate student, Scott Davis, who was keenly interested in induced seismicity. The two worked together to produce several papers on the topic, and Frohlich found himself pursuing a new avenue of research that eventually became the flashpoint over the use of hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas production.
The serendipity of his late-career research on what has become such a hot-button issue is not lost on him.
“There are different kinds of scientists,” Frohlich observes. “Some scientists are really focused on a particular area of research … and their whole life they bore into something and get deeper and deeper.”
The other type, of which he is one, “can get interested in almost anything,” he adds. “I’ve always been something of an opportunist.”
In 2009 researchers at Southern Methodist University contacted Frohlich and asked him to join in a study aimed at identifying the location and cause of a sequence of earthquakes at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. He readily agreed to participate in the research and, over time, co-authored several scientific papers with the SMU team, an experience he describes as “wonderfully collaborative.”
“Working with them is as science should be; mutually supportive to utilize each other’s strengths and fill in for each other’s weaknesses,” he says.
In 2013, following a spate of earthquakes along a fault system near Azle, Texas, SMU came calling again, asking Frohlich to collaborate with them on a project to assess whether the earthquakes were caused by human activity. The earthquakes had aroused activists and environmentalists opposed to the use of hydraulic fracturing, leading to a series of uproarious public hearings at which local property owners and others vehemently deplored ‘fracking.’
The team’s research, as published in a peer-reviewed article published in Nature Communications, concluded that the earthquakes were indeed located close to oil and gas wells, and were most likely triggered by the injection of high volumes of wastewater and brine related to extensive oil and gas production in the Barnett shale play.
The controversy reached a fever pitch when the Texas Railroad Commission subsequently initiated its own inquiry, which determined that oil and gas activity was not the likely cause the earthquakes.
By that point, Frohlich had become something of a cause cèlébre whose expertise was in great demand among journalists and others seeking comment on the issue.
While the brouhaha brought attention to his research, Frohlich would have preferred to stay out of the limelight. That said, he feels it is his civic duty to participate to some degree in the public discourse.
“I have had to manage my time in ways that I didn’t before,” he notes. “If I agreed to do every presentation, or answered every phone call, I wouldn’t get any work done.”
“Since 2009 or 2010, we’ve learned a lot,” he adds, “but we still don’t know enough that we can just give someone a recipe” on where to drill or avoid drilling.
With respect to the recalcitrance of some regulators to acknowledge the link between oil and gas wastewater disposal and earthquakes, Frohlich says he sees progress, albeit slowly.
“There are a lot of very responsible people in the energy industry who are doing the right thing or trying to do the right thing,” he says, “and the regulations are going in the right direction.”
The majority of oil and gas producers, Frohlich says, have a pragmatic view of induced earthquakes.
“If you’re an oil company, you don’t want to cause earthquakes; it costs you money.”
Looking back, Frohlich believes his research has helped cement the realization that Texas “had an induced earthquake problem,” which contributed to formation of the state-funded TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program, established by UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology. The program’s mission is to identify the origins of earthquakes in Texas, determine whether they were caused by human activity, and help prevent them from occurring in the future.
Frohlich, who was born in Wisconsin, grew up in western South Dakota, and went to high school in Maryland, graduated with a double major in physics and math at Grinnell College in central Iowa.
As a freshman at Grinnell he tried out for the school’s wrestling team before switching to swimming and springboard diving, where one year he ranked second in his conference. Diving also presented an opportunity for Frohlich to parlay what he had learned in his first physics course. He later wrote a paper about divers and the conservation of angular momentum.
Frohlich remains a big sports fan, with a special appreciation for baseball.
“I have a close friend who is a Shakespeare scholar,” he says. “I tell him that ‘a baseball game is like a Shakespeare play; you don’t know what it’s really about until it’s all over.’ ”
“My friend says I don’t understand Shakespeare. Go figure.”
Away from his office, Frohlich says he feels “the most alive” when cycling, and is “probably happiest” when attending a baseball game with friends or family.
For someone whose father had a Ph.D. in sociology and was an aspiring novelist, and whose mother was a professional librarian, Frohlich knew the bar had been set high for him to make a living in the Arts.
Instead, he used the skills he inherited from his family to pen scholarly papers on the intricacies of geophysics and plate tectonics.
“I went into science because I wasn’t a good writer,” he says. “It turns out writing is really important in science, so being the third-best writer in my family is pretty good.”
Gary Rasp is Communications Director for UT Austin’s Energy Institute.