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Senators make push for early warning systems for earthquakes and volcanoes

By Steve Bittenbender

At Thursday’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Hearing, the panel’s top two members called on the government to provide funding for systems that would alert residents of pending natural disasters.

The calls by Committee Chairwoman Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell came during an oversight hearing for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said she appreciated the work of the USGS, especially because of what they do involving volcanoes. She noted in her last trip back home, she was not able to fly because of a volcanic eruption. It’s because of that that the agency’s work toward an early warning system for eruptions is important for people who live and work in Alaska, she said.

“Alaskans, in particular, are grateful for the work that USGS does to help us cope with the daily threat of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other natural hazards,” said Murkowski in her opening remarks.

Cantwell noted the USGS’ work in several areas, including developing maps, monitoring rivers and managing public lands. But the Washington Democrat, who is a co-sponsor with Murkowski on a bill to create a nationwide early-warning volcano system, wants to see more work on another early-warning system for a disaster that could impact her state.

“USGS studies show that a major earthquake could occur in the next 50 years,” Cantwell said. “It has been estimated that this earthquake could approach the intensity of the quake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, potentially affecting major cities like Seattle. In fact, we are having the largest scale tsunami drill two months from now in the Northwest. It is going to be thousands of people participating in how to respond to that.”

An early-warning earthquake system could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in damages, the Washington senator said.

Cantwell added that she also wants the Geological Society to work with officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is conducting work regarding a tsunami warning system. Experts say an earthquake in the Pacific Northwest could create a tsunami that would deal a devastating combination to people in Washington and Oregon.

“Washington, like Alaska, has its share of these hazards,” Cantwell said. “We are so glad that (USGS is) an absolutely critical partner in monitoring and responding to these hazards.”

USGS Director Dr. Suzette Kimball assured the Senators that the agency is working toward making such early-warning systems a reality. She noted that her staff is establishing partnerships with states, colleges and other key stakeholders to develop an early-warning system for earthquakes along the west coast.

“This system could readily be expanded to Alaska and other high-risk regions of the country,” Kimball said. “We are also applying advanced telemetry and remote sensing technologies, making a volcano early warning system a reality. For many of your constituents, these are hazards they live with every day and they are also threats to the Nation as a whole.”

Another area that is a concern for the USGS is landslides, and Kimball said the hope is one day they will be able to forecast when such phenomenon occur.

“The unknown unknowns of Earth science motivate us to advance our understanding of the natural world,” she said.


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