Laike Mariam Asfaw

2008 International Award Winner

Laike Mariam Asfaw received the AGU new international award at the 2008 Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held on 29 May 2008 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The award honors “an individual scientist or a small team for making an outstanding contribution to furthering the Earth and space sciences and using our science for the benefit of society in less favored nations.”


Laike Mariam Asfaw became the director of the Addis Ababa Geophysical Observatory (AAO) at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, in 1978. His quiet calm and dedication have ensured a continuous, high-quality data stream throughout the often politically turbulent period since. He is also deeply involved in the geophysical education of his country’s science students, understanding, awareness-raising, and advising on its seismic and related hazards, and the promotion of its science on the international stage.

The AAO was founded in the International Geophysical Year (IGY) as a geomagnetic observatory, still one of the few in Africa. Originally using paper records, hourly mean data have been produced since the observatory’s inception; minute mean values have been available since 2000. It is now an International Real-Time Magnetic Observatory Network (INTERMAGNET) observatory, indicating that it adheres to the highest standards of operation and, through satellite communication, provides data in near real time. Seismometer installation took place in 1959 and was upgraded with digital equipment in 1997. The AAO now also manages the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) broadband and other short-period digital seismic stations in Ethiopia, and is an auxiliary Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization station. A continuously running GPS receiver has recently augmented the instrument base, and AAO is an International Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Service station. The observatory’s development and expansion and commitment of overseas funds would not have happened without Laike’s leadership. He also ensures that AAO staff and students are actively involved in research based on the observatory’s data.

Laike’s numerous major committee memberships have included the International Association for Seismology and Physics of the Earth’s Interior committee for developing countries, the International Association for Geodesy (IAG) working group on the application of geodetic studies for earthquake prediction, the working group on verification technology for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and the International Union for Geodesy and Geophysics/IAG working group on dynamic isostasy.

The Ethiopian rift and Afar regions are unique in showcasing the late stages of continental breakup above sea level, so the AAO hosts a constant stream of overseas visitors seeking advice and support. Laike was Ethiopian project leader for the Ethiopia Afar Geoscientific Lithospheric Experiment involving some 80 Ethiopian and overseas scientists, including practically every geophysicist in Ethiopia—well educated and enthusiastic, thanks to Laike and his team. Ethiopia’s Afar region remains in the grip of a seismovolcanic crisis, at the start of which a new 60-kilometer-long, 6-meter-wide magmatic segment opened up involving the injection of vast quantities of material into the crust. Laike has been advising both the national and regional governments, at presidential level, on the associated hazard. At the time of this writing, the seismometers have just recorded yet another earthquake swarm followed by a dyking event.

Laike’s vision and enthusiasm continue unabated. He recently successfully proposed the expansion and transformation of the AAO into an Institute of Geophysics, Space Science and Astronomy, incorporating other units within the university’s science faculty to form an interdisciplinary center.

I am expecting Laike to respond to this citation with his usual modesty, suggesting his colleagues should take the credit. Don’t be fooled—he has been the long-term driving force behind AAO’s success. His colleagues and many Western scientists were enthusiastic supporters of the nomination leading to this award, commenting on his ability to help acquire the highest-quality data, and his selfless commitment to furthering the careers of his younger colleagues. It is an honor to present someone who embodies and has put into practice AGU’s motto in such challenging circumstances over the past 30 years.

Laike Asfaw is a wonderful ambassador for his science and his country, and it is fitting to bestow AGU’s new international award on him in the AAO’s fiftieth-anniversary year.

—KATHRYN A. WHALER, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK


Thank you, Kathy, for your generous remarks. I also thank the supporters of my nomination: Peter Maguire of University of Leicester, and Andrew Nyblade of Pennsylvania State University. I am grateful to AGU for bestowing its new international award on me.

We inherited an excellent observatory from Father Pierre Gouin, S.J., the distinguished Canadian founding director. At the time, many people were of the opinion that that was the end of the geophysical observatory of Addis Ababa, and it went that way for a short time before a recovery could start. This international award is a witness that the recovery has succeeded at last. In the tasks of recovery and forging ahead, my colleagues Gebrebrhan Ogubazghi, currently at Asmara University, Eritrea, and Atalay Ayele, with whom I work now, played very significant roles. The success is also a tribute to the many scientists who worked with our observatory.

As Kathy mentioned, the observatory I come from was founded during the International Geophysical Year in 1957 as a geomagnetic station. Since then, numerous programs and projects have been actively contributing to a number of branches of geophysics. The early collaborations with Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and Laboratoire de Sondages Electromagnétiques de l’Environnement Terrestre of France in geomagnetism and ionospheric physics and with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in seismology were the most significant ones. These important programs are still active after over 40 years of operation under the newer names of INTERMAGNET and IRIS/U.S. Geological Survey, respectively. The other short- and long-term projects conducted earlier at different times are too numerous to list here.

Since 1990 a number of projects in geodesy, seismology, applied geophysics, and tectonics supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), the Natural Environment Research Council, and the National Science Foundation, of Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, respectively, have been carried out in the northern East African rift and the Afar to measure and localize rift extension rates, map the lithosphere in three dimensions, and understand the process of transition from continental to oceanic rift.

Currently there is a concerted effort by a group of universities in Europe and the United States with the Addis Ababa Observatory and the Earth science department of our faculty to extend and deepen this knowledge through unprecedented seismic and geodetic networks augmented by other geophysical and interferometric synthetic aperture radar methods. Several postgraduate students are involved in this program.

In all these activities the local support for research has always been very limited. During the execution of projects, in all our endeavors to handle local difficulties, our foreign partners have been understanding and supportive.

In all the joint programs and projects, our priorities have always been training of young graduates and building infrastructure. Regarding infrastructure and manpower training, SIDA supported us for a long period, bringing up the capacity of our observatory to a level that made it, we hope, a worthy research partner to collaborating foreign institutes.

The initial decision of the IGY’s committee to start a geomagnetic station at an equatorial site formed the basis of all of the work done at the Addis Ababa Observatory. With the launching of the International Heliophysical Year in 2007, new opportunities to develop space and atmospheric sciences are presenting themselves. In a similar vein the Addis Ababa Observatory will take up the challenge of developing these fields in the country.

The sum total of research endeavors at Addis Ababa Observatory will require a larger institute to lead them. Currently, the Addis Ababa University, to which we belong, is transforming our observatory into such an institute.

—LAIKE MARIAM ASFAW, Geophysical Observatory, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia