Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, and other possible natural disasters are difficult to predict, but early warnings and prior planning can mitigate the devastation and save lives. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held an oversight hearing of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), to examine the future direction of USGS priorities and to make sure they reflect the Committee’s priorities for the agency. Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (AK) expressed her concern with the lack of available information on current U.S. mineral resources required to secure dependence from foreign suppliers and inform international trade agreements.
Additional focus was paid to USGS plans to garner necessary background information and a response network for natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanos, tsunamis, landslides, and solar storms. Dr. John Vidale (Washington State Seismologist and Director, Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, University of Washington) described two important operations to “improve the early warning system and sea floor monitoring” for earthquakes along the west coast. Vidale further highlighted, “the implementation plan for earthquake early warning for Washington, Oregon, and California costs $16 million per year for equipment and operations… The USGS funding level for earthquake early monitoring from Congress in FY16 was $8 million, and the Administration has requested the same in the FY17 budget.” Thus, the early warning system remains underfunded and cannot operate at its highest level. Additionally, Dr. Robert McCoy (Director of the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks) was “especially enthused about the efforts by the USGS to establish the national volcano early warning system and to reauthorize the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program and the Tsunami Warning, Education, and Research Act” of 2015. Both Republican and Democratic Committee members agreed that increasing the scientific understanding of natural disasters helps better prepare the nation for a natural disaster.
While committee members from both parties spoke positively about the research reputation of the USGS, only Senator Al Franken (MN) mentioned being pleased to see that the USGS has made climate change a high priority. A number of Senators questioned the witnesses on the geologic and political implications of invasive species, water rights, protected lands, and industrial drilling, leading to lively discussions on the future of the USGS’s science goals.