House Natural Resources Committee Discusses Earthquake Science and Warnings

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Publication date: 
9 April 2014

The Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources of the House Committee on Natural Resources held a March 27 hearing to discuss advances in earthquake science to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Great Alaskan Quake, a 9.2 magnitude earthquake which is the second largest in recorded history.  Subcommittee members heard from witnesses about the rise in earthquake information and data that followed the Alaskan earthquake.  Early warning systems, hydraulic fracturing, and developments in scientific research and data acquisition were areas of interest during the hearing. 

Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) opened the hearing stating, “The Great Alaskan Earthquake is one of the most studied natural disasters.  The Federal response was significant not only in economic relief and reconstruction but also research.”  The scientific papers and National Academies’ studies that resulted from the study of the earthquake were influential in discoveries about plate tectonics.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Rush Holt (D-NJ) also echoed that the disaster in Alaska was sobering as he highlighted the need for further geosciences research.  He was interested in induced earthquakes and the relationship between earthquakes and wastewater injection during hydraulic fracturing.  Additionally, he wanted to hear from witnesses “what research we have yet to sponsor?”

Ranking Member of the full Committee Peter DeFazio (D-OR) opened by expressing his interest in further developing early warning systems.  He posed budgetary questions regarding the Safe Drinking Water Act and requested that the subcommittee revisit the topic of induced seismicity due to the reinjection of wastewater in a separate hearing. 

Four witnesses testified.  William Leith, Senior Science Advisor for Earthquake and Geological Hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) spoke about the changes in national earthquake safety policy that followed from the 1964 Alaskan earthquake.  He described the partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Science Foundation and USGS that comprise the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program.  He also outlined the partnership and programs in the Advanced National Seismic System that are responsible for monitoring, assessing and characterizing, researching causes and effects, and examining issues of earthquake safety. 

Lisa Grant Ludwig, President-Elect of the Seismological Society of America and Graduate Director of the Program in Public Health at the University of California Irvine spoke about the scientific revolution that occurred as a result of the Alaskan Earthquake and the federal investments that were responsible for the increase in scientific understanding.  She advocated for continued funding for the National Seismic System and for reauthorization of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program.  She also asked the committee to support further developments in earthquake early warning systems. 

John Vidale, Director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and Professor in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington discussed earthquake early warning systems and sea floor monitoring as they relate to risk mitigation and the development of an offshore information system.  He also advocated for strengthening the National Earthquake Reduction System.  Additionally, he described the role of USGS in identifying earthquake risks. 

Reginald DesRoches, Professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology provided the subcommittee with an overview of advances in structural dynamics stating that studies of structural deficiencies, seismic forces and ductility are critical to designing earthquake-resilient structures.  He highlighted federal resources that have contributed to retrofitting designs and discussed his work in a seismic retrofit project, which receives support from NERP. 

Questions following the testimony demonstrated a bipartisan interest in support for early warning systems.  Ludwig noted that federal support for scientific research produces results that are used by engineers in design of earthquake resilient systems.  Lamborn was interested to learn the status of existing retrofitted structures while Holt asked how the USGS would use additional funding for seismicity research were there to be further funding available.  DeFazio wondered what data and resources were still necessary to learn about induced seismicity while Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) discussed natural hazard mitigation. 

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