Senators and Scientists Seek to Strengthen USGS Natural Hazard Monitoring

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Publication date: 
8 February 2018

A recent Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing highlighted the central role the U.S. Geological Survey plays in natural hazards monitoring. Experts also endorsed several pending bills that would expand early detection and mapping capabilities for earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides.

At a Jan. 30 hearing, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee welcomed a panel of geoscientists and government representatives to testify about the roles the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Forest Service play in the monitoring and early detection of natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, and tsunamis.

Several panelists urged Congress to further support natural hazards monitoring by passing several pending bills that would renew and expand programs focused on earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides. Committee members on both sides of the aisle also voiced strong support for natural hazards monitoring programs, as well as their concerns over the impacts budget constraints may have on USGS natural hazard programs.

Committee heads push for expanded monitoring 

In her opening statement, Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said the purpose of the hearing was to learn about current measures for minimizing risks from natural hazards “that many Americans experience on a somewhat regular basis.” Citing the recent 7.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami off the coast of Alaska, she said that while there was minimal damage, she felt “we just got lucky” and said there are still gaps to be filled in monitoring and advanced warning systems. 


Alaskan earthquakes

Location of the January 23, 2018 earthquake (red star) relative to the 1938, 1946, and 1964 earthquake locations (pink shaded areas).

(Image credit – U.S. Geological Survey)

Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) emphasized the importance of hazards research, saying:

Natural hazards are unpreventable. But the more we know about the science and the causes of hazards, the better we can prepare for these events and build more resilient and safer communities.

She also said that while states play a leading role in preparing for and responding to natural disasters, “USGS is absolutely a critical partner in monitoring and responding to these hazards.” 

Both Murkowski and Cantwell have introduced legislation supporting federal natural hazards monitoring efforts. One bill would reauthorize the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. Two others — the “National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act” and the “National Landslide Preparedness Act” — have been incorporated into the Senate’s “Energy and Natural Resources Act” and have companion bills in the House.

Murkowski and Cantwell co-sponsored the Tsunami Warning, Education and Research Act, incorporated into the comprehensive weather research bill signed into law last year, as well as legislation passed by the Senate to reauthorize the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Program, which supports marine hazards warning systems.

Murkowski has been a longstanding supporter of natural hazards monitoring and early warning since she arrived in the Senate in 2002. She recalled how she was “mocked” and “ridiculed” when she first introduced legislation on volcano monitoring, which she said had been called “a big, fat Alaskan earmark.” However, she said, support for monitoring legislation has grown since a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010 had a significant impact on global air traffic. She reflected:

I look back on that and think we have come a long way when it comes to how we are monitoring for these natural hazards … [but] there’s so much more we need to do.

Members seek to unearth effects of potential funding cuts

David Applegate, associate director for natural hazards at USGS, updated the committee on several ongoing USGS monitoring initiatives, including the development of earthquake and volcano early warning systems and the adoption of seismic monitoring stations in Alaska.

Murkowski told Applegate she is “deeply troubled” by reports that the National Science Foundation is considering removing some of its seismic monitoring stations currently deployed in Alaska for a two-year period as part of the EarthScope program.

Applegate indicated USGS is developing a congressionally mandated implementation plan for adopting stations and is “making a good-faith effort” to acquire as many of the monitors as possible. However, he said availability of funding at USGS and partner agencies will be a major factor in the ultimate decision of how many monitors to acquire. Asked by Murkowski about the consequences of not acquiring the stations, Alaska State Seismologist Michael West replied that Alaska “would revert to where we were prior to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Both Cantwell and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Applegate to comment on the administration’s proposed cuts in the fiscal year 2018 budget for implementation of earthquake and volcano early warning systems. Applegate explained that this year’s budget process “involved a lot of hard choices” resulting in a focus on “core monitoring capabilities.” While the outcome for this year’s budget is still uncertain, he indicated that “should Congress support these activities [USGS] would certainly follow the will of Congress.” 

Applegate told Wyden that work to implement ShakeAlert, the agency’s earthquake early warning system, is now halfway complete because of continued congressional support. However, he said, the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal “would not focus on the early warning system, [but instead] would focus on our current capabilities [and] what we can deliver now.”

Despite efforts to assure Wyden that current capabilities would not be impaired by proposed cuts, Wyden demanded that Applegate follow up with a more detailed written response to the committee on potential impacts.

Cantwell commented that she “hope[s] the administration watches this hearing,” as it shows “that these are serious issues, and that monitoring science is a good thing and that it gives us a chance to be prepared.”

Witnesses stress hazard awareness key for community resilience

Several of the witnesses stressed the importance of USGS monitoring and mapping as a key tool for improving community resilience. Pat Branson, mayor of Kodiak, Alaska, said that, in cities such as her own that are in natural hazard-prone areas, “being prepared is a necessary and vital component of maintaining the safety of our residents and our local economies.”

Karen Berry, the state geologist for Colorado, testified that “as the population increases in hazard-prone areas, community resilience … is greatly dependent on knowing vulnerabilities to hazards and planning for those hazards.” She said geologic mapping is a basic risk assessment tool that most communities do not have.

Both Berry and David Norman, the state geologist for Washington, endorsed the “Landslide Preparedness Act,” noting that it includes a component directing USGS to establish a formal 3D elevation planning program that leverages Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology to map and monitor geologic hazards.

West stressed that the pending natural hazards legislation has the potential to “reinvigorate these hazard programs, [and] retool them for a new era,” as well as improve collaboration between USGS and other agencies. A failure to support them, he said, would cause a ripple of uncertainty which “ultimately impacts our municipal stakeholders, who are just trying to build safe, resilient communities.” He concluded:

These are not partisan, or even controversial topics. These are goals that we can all support.

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